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Tinkered, tailored

Critics of the CIA say that that the agency lost direction after the break-up of the Soviet Union, against whom it had struggled so hard.

india Updated: May 24, 2006 00:31 IST

His arrival created controversy and so did his departure. For nothing was becoming either about Porter Goss’s arrival at Langley to replace George Tenet, or about his departure on May 5. He was brought in to head a sullen and demoralised force and when he was unceremoniously dropped, the CIA was a much-diminished organisation. His sudden departure only confirms that political appointments to posts such as intelligence chiefs to run organisations as large, intricate and varied as the CIA, much less reform it, are not the answer.

Goss could take solace in that he was not the first to be removed mid-term. Most of the CIA’s directors either resigned in frustration or were asked to leave in unhappy circumstances. Appointed for political reasons, they were just as easily turfed out either when they were perceived to have become political embarrassments or when they refused to politicise intelligence. 

Allen Dulles lost his job after the Bay of Pigs disaster. His successor, John McCone, had to go because he had the temerity to tell President Johnson that the Vietnam war was doing badly. McCone’s successor Richard Helms left because he refused to bail out Nixon from the Watergate quagmire. Reagan’s adventurism led to the notorious Iran-contra scandal where US arms were sold to Iran clandestinely as ransom for American hostages. And Bill Casey left blood splattered with the agency put under a microscopic Congressional scanner. The agency was hobbled by various restrictions but still did well in the Afghan jehad.

James Woolsey was Clinton’s Director Central Intelligence (DCI). But in two years Clinton met him only twice. Woolsey left in disgust. John Deutsch, Clinton’s next DCI was an interlude that many in the agency did not remember fondly or with pride. George Tenet was Clinton’s third DCI, retained his post with George Bush but had to leave -- after a decent interval, and he is remembered for his ‘slam dunk’ intelligence about WMDs in Iraq and for taking the rap for the famous 16 words in Bush’s State of the Union address, when he had said that uranium had reached Iraq from Niger. Intelligence chiefs were political appointees, but it seems intelligence was getting politicised.

Goss took over as the CIA’s 18th director but he was no longer the powerful DCI. He was no longer the man the US president would see at 8 a.m. every morning to be briefed about threats to the US. That job had gone to the intelligence tsar, John Negroponte, the newly appointed Director of National Intelligence. Goss would not preside over the 15 intelligence agencies of the US. That too, would be done by Negroponte, who would also be chief of the new National Counter-Terrorism Centre, superceding the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre. Negroponte’s office would liaise with foreign intelligence organisations. The CIA had lost its primacy.

Strengthened repeatedly to battle the Soviet threat, the CIA is also remembered for its many disasters -- but that is how intelligence agencies are usually remembered. The two successes that are most often quoted are the overthrow of Iranian PM Mohammad Mossadegh and restoration of the Shah in Iran in 1953. The second was the Afghan jehad fought from Pakistani soil. It is usually assumed that the Americans intervened after the Soviets entered Afghanistan. What is not often remembered is that the CIA had been in touch with the Pakistanis early in 1979 to work out deals to tackle the growing communist threat in Afghanistan.

It was Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s NSA, who insisted that the Soviets be trapped in Afghanistan in a Soviet Vietnam. By March 1979, American intelligence and strategists, worried about growing Soviet influence in the region were considering policy options including help to Pakistan. Zia-ul Haq assessed his value to the US and knew he could afford to hang his Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto. The next day on April 6, the Special Co-ordination Committee recommended that covert assistance to the insurgents be given. Carter finally signed a ‘finding’ that the Afghan mujahideen be secretly helped following a meeting on July 3, 1979, nearly six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. By August that year, Zia was already asking for an increase in weapons’ supply for the mujahideen. So much for the champions of democracy.

Critics of the CIA say that that the agency lost direction after the break-up of the Soviet Union, against whom it had struggled so hard but whose downfall it could not predict. There was an exodus of many respected CIA officials in the Nineties and again after 2001, either at retirement or resignations.

Clinton’s disinterest in the agency throughout his eight years did not help either. As a result, the CIA and the rest of America was ill-prepared that September Tuesday to handle that kind of terrorist act. They had become comfortable in the delusion that the US was impregnable.

Since then the CIA became the most beleaguered agency in the US. From within, leading to another exodus of experienced men, and from the Pentagon that was succeeding in acquiring an ever-expanding role into areas traditionally belonging to CIA turf; from the new office of the Director of National Intelligence that wanted to poach on the CIA; and from the neo-con cabal that could barely conceal its contempt for the CIA. And finally, there was a president who no longer seemed to trust the agency and downgraded it.

David Frum and Richard Perle (nicknamed the ‘Prince of Darkness’ for his high-profile hardline stance) have been close advisors to Bush and are members of the Right-wing American Enterprise Institute. In their book, An End to Evil, they refer to the persistent failure of the CIA and its inability to reform. Phillip Knightley in his book, The Second Oldest Profession, commented that the main criticism of the CIA’s Iraq intelligence was that it had become politicised. Also that it had been undermined by leading figures in the Bush administration who wanted a radical change in the way the CIA operated. They demanded that the agency should concentrate on gathering intelligence and reduce its team of analysts. Further, and very strangely, they wanted that analysis of intelligence material should not be done by intelligence officials but by outsiders, preferably elected officials.

This would be the surest way to politicise intelligence where intelligence would be bent to suit political expediency and CIA bosses protested. It is always a grave error if the policy-maker tries to influence the conclusion that an intelligence agency draws from its analysis, or what Kenneth Pollack calls ‘creative omission’ -- discussing intelligence estimates that serve the leader’s cause. Ironically, this is exactly what happened in the lead up to the Iraq invasion when the intelligence apparatus was forced to stand aside and intelligence manipulated that led to breakdown of morale and professionalism. Important strategic decisions were being taken after either disregarding or ignoring intelligence advice.

It was into this milieu that Porter Goss arrived at Langley. The fact that he had worked in the CIA 30 years ago helped very little. The business of collection of intelligence had changed radically in the elapsed decades. There were new threats in an increasingly complicated networked new world. Besides, Goss had no access to the president and for an external intelligence agency that does not get any public recognition and no victory parades, access to the chief executive is the only recognition they have. Take that away and you take away its self-respect. And when you take this away, the agency stops giving out its best.

Goss was bound to fail.