What’s wrong with the U.S. intelligence community
is that over the past three decades its ethos of telling truth to power
has been corrupted by politics to such a degree that George W. Bush now
sees the Central Intelligence Agency as virtually his family’s fiefdom,
with the Langley, Virginia, headquarters even named for his father,
George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director.
So, when analysts at the CIA were viewed as
undercutting George W. Bush’s case for war with Iraq, the White House
launched a counter-attack against these intelligence professionals for
During the buildup to the Iraq War, Vice President
Dick Cheney personally went to CIA headquarters to bang heads with
intelligence analysts who doubted White House claims about Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction. While some analysts resisted, many
mid-level bureaucrats acquiesced to Cheney.
Paul Pillar, the CIA’s senior intelligence analyst
for the Middle East, said the Bush administration didn’t just play games
with the principle of objective analysis, but “turned the entire model
After quitting the CIA in 2005, Pillar wrote an
Foreign Affairs magazine stating that “the administration used
intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision
“The Bush administration deviated from the
professional standard not only in using policy to drive intelligence,
but also in aggressively using intelligence to win public support for
its decision to go to war,” Pillar wrote. “This meant selectively
adducing data – ‘cherry-picking’ – rather than using the intelligence
community’s own analytic judgments.”
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq failed to find
WMD, the White House put much of the blame on the spy agency. Some of the suppressed CIA doubts
then began to surface, embarrassing
Bush during Campaign 2004.
At that delicate political moment, Bush installed
Goss, a partisan Republican congressman recruited by Cheney, to take
over the CIA. The Goss appointment on Sept. 24, 2004, reflected Bush’s
determination to bring the agency’s analytical division into line with
his policies both before and after the November 2004 presidential
Like a Medieval ruler punishing a rebellious
province, Bush sent in loyal henchmen to root out perceived traitors.
Bush’s attitude toward CIA analysts who disagreed with his pre-war
assertions about Iraq’s WMD was much like his anger toward the French
for cautioning him about his Iraq invasion plans.
Being right was no protection from Bush’s wrath;
indeed, it appeared to make him madder. Though Bush has continued to
this day to stress how much he values accurate intelligence as vital for
the nation’s security, his real record has been one of insisting on
getting information that fits his preconceptions.
So, rather than reward the CIA analysts who had
resisted White House pressure to cook the WMD intelligence on Iraq, Bush
set out to remove them. (He also took aim at the State Department,
another bastion of WMD dissent, where he moved to replace the diffident Colin
Powell with the enthusiastic loyalist Condoleezza Rice.)
At the CIA, Bush’s intelligence purge gained
momentum in the weeks after he secured his second term. Bush saw his
victory as almost a mystical validation of his view that the “war on
terror” was a conflict between good and evil in which people were either
with Bush or with the terrorists. Bush called the election his
CIA intelligence professionals got the message that
they could either get behind Bush’s policies or get out. The loyalty
demands led to an exodus of senior CIA officials, including deputy CIA
chief John E. McLaughlin and deputy director of operations Stephen R.
In whipping the remaining intelligence analysts
into line, Bush was helped by powerful conservative news personalities –
from AM talk radio to Fox News, from right-wing newspaper columnists to
Internet bloggers – who conjured up conspiracy theories about a CIA plot
to destroy the President.
Conservative columnist David Brooks was among those
pushing the argument that the CIA’s only rightful role was to serve the
“Now that he’s been returned to office, President
Bush is going to have to differentiate between his opponents and his
enemies,” wrote Brooks in the New York Times. “His opponents are found
in the Democratic Party. His enemies are in certain offices of the
Central Intelligence Agency.”
To Brooks, the justification for Bush going after
the CIA was the release of information that made Bush look bad.
“At the height of the campaign, CIA officials, who
are supposed to serve the President and stay out of politics and policy,
served up leak after leak to discredit the President’s Iraq policy,”
“In mid-September , somebody leaked a CIA
report predicting a gloomy or apocalyptic future for the region. Later
that month, a senior CIA official, Paul Pillar, reportedly made comments
saying he had long felt the decision to go to war would heighten
anti-American animosity in the Arab world.” [NYT, Nov. 13, 2004]
On the Mark
Nearly 18 months later, those CIA assessments seem
to have been right on the mark, as violence in Iraq continues to spin
out of control and the Middle East seethes with hatred toward the United
But in November 2004, the victorious President and
his conservative allies were set on throttling those intelligence
professionals who still believed that their job was to get the
information right, not just tell Bush what he wanted to hear.
Bush’s counterinsurgency campaign to stamp out
disloyalty at the CIA also was more paranoia than recognition of an
actual threat. Though the White House selected Goss to lead the purge,
the supposed CIA “cabal” never really existed. “He came in to clean up
without knowing what he was going to clean up,” one former intelligence
officer told Washington Post reporter Dana Priest.
Nevertheless, Goss and his lieutenants from his old
congressional staff drove out a number of mid- and senior-level officers
caught up in the search for disloyalty. “The agency was never at war
with the White House,” former CIA operations officer Gary Berntsen told
“Eighty-five percent of them are Republicans,” said
Berntsen, a self-described Republican and Bush supporter. “The CIA was a
convenient scapegoat.” [Washington Post, May 6, 2006]
Plus, the claim from Bush’s media supporters that the
CIA only existed to “serve the President” was not historically accurate.
While it may be true that the CIA’s operations
directorate was created as a secret paramilitary arm for the U.S.
executive, the CIA’s analytical division was established to provide
objective information to both the President and other parts of the U.S.
government, including Congress.
Even at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and
1960s, the CIA’s analytical division took pride in telling presidents
what they didn’t want to hear – such as debunking Eisenhower’s “bomber
gap” or Kennedy’s “missile gap” or Johnson’s faith in the air war
against North Vietnam.
Though never perfectly applied, the ethos of
objective analysis continued through the mid-1970s. Then, CIA analysis
began to come under sustained attack from conservatives and a new group
called neoconservatives, who insisted that the Soviet Union was a
rapidly expanding military menace with its eye on world conquest.
The CIA analytical division held a more nuanced
assessment of the Soviet threat, viewing Moscow as a declining
superpower struggling to keep pace with the West while coping with
fissures inside its own empire.
This CIA analysis was the background for the
“détente strategy” followed by President Richard Nixon and his Secretary
of State Henry Kissinger, who sought to negotiate arms control and other
agreements with the Soviet Union.
But Nixon’s ouster over the Watergate scandal in
1974 and Ronald Reagan’s entrance on the national political stage in
1976 altered the political dynamic.
Scared by Reagan’s successes in the Republican
primaries, President Gerald Ford ordered the word “détente” dropped from
the White House lexicon and let then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush open
up the CIA’s analytical division to an unprecedented challenge from
right-wing intellectuals, known as “Team B.”
The “Team B” assessment, bringing in old-time Cold
Warriors and young neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, accused the CIA
analytical division of systematically underestimating the growing Soviet
In late 1976, to accommodate this powerful
conservative wing of the Republican Party, CIA Director Bush adopted a
more alarmist CIA estimate of Soviet power.
When Reagan became President in 1981, with Bush as
his Vice President, the assault on the CIA’s analytical division resumed
in earnest. Analysts who balked at the new administration’s ideological
vision of the Soviet Union as a 10-foot-tall behemoth were shunted aside
or forced out of the CIA.
The CIA’s once proud Soviet division took the brunt
of the attacks. The surviving analysts began ignoring the mounting
evidence of a rapid Soviet decline, so as not to contradict the
Reagan-Bush justification for an expanded U.S. military budget and for
bloody interventions in Third World conflicts from Nicaragua to
In reality, Moscow couldn’t even keep control along
its own borders. But the Reagan-Bush pressure on the U.S. intelligence
process proved so effective that CIA analysts filtered out the evidence
of a Soviet crackup.
Ironically, when the Soviet Empire collapsed in the
late 1980s, the CIA took the blame for “missing” one of the most
important political events of the Twentieth Century. Ironically, too,
Reagan, who had built up the Soviet straw man, got the most credit when
it fell down. [For details, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Since then, I have talked with CIA veterans who
acknowledged that the politicized agency overstated the Soviet threat
despite reliable intelligence from their own agents inside the Soviet
bloc who were describing the internal problems.
This “intelligence failure” was not just one of
misjudgments; it was one of ideological pressure that distorted the
Soviet reality to fit with White House policies.
In the second Bush administration, which brought
back many of the Reagan-Bush neoconservatives, the same pattern
recurred. Intelligence was “cherry-picked” to justify policy, rather
than letting objective analysis inform the policy.
In effect, Bush made his decisions on “gut”
instincts and had evidence compiled to justify his decisions. When
Bush’s “gut” failed him – such as when he ignored CIA warnings about the
9/11 attacks or when he pushed bogus intelligence on Iraq’s WMD – the
CIA stood in as the whipping boy, taking the worst of the institutional
By 2005, the CIA was stripped of its role as
the lead agency in the U.S. intelligence community, when Congress
created the new position of Director of National Intelligence on the
recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.
However, the new post of DNI – directly under the
President – didn’t address the question of politicization. Nothing was
done to rebuild the lost ethos of objective analysis or to reject the
notion that the CIA “serves the President.”
Bush appointed John Negroponte, a career diplomat
considered a Cold War hard-liner, to fill the new position as DNI in
Negroponte had served as ambassador to Honduras in
the 1980s when the CIA was organizing the contra war against Nicaragua
and he represented the United States as U.N. ambassador when the false
Iraq WMD case was presented in 2002-2003. In 2004-2005, he was U.S.
ambassador in Iraq as sectarian “death squads” emerged as a new threat.
Despite his prominent roles in the Bush
administration, Negroponte wasn’t viewed as part of the neoconservative
inner circle that had pushed the Iraq War. Rather, he fell more into the
traditional Cold War camp of hard-nosed operatives who would carry out
orders, even ones that stretched the limits of morality.
When Negroponte became DNI, Goss had to face the
fact of his diminished role in the intelligence community. Instead of
being called Director of Central Intelligence, he became just the CIA
Perhaps trying to demonstrate his intense loyalty
to George W. Bush, Goss created more turmoil in the CIA by ordering
polygraphs of CIA officials in an investigation into who leaked the
secret of clandestine CIA prisons in Eastern Europe where terror
suspects were interrogated and allegedly tortured.
The polygraphs led to the ouster of veteran CIA
officer Mary McCarthy, though she denied leaking the information.
Goss ran into more controversy when his hand-picked
executive director, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, became embroiled in the
investigation of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-California, who
was sentenced in March to more than eight years in prison for accepting
$2.4 million in bribes from military contractors.
Foggo was a longtime friend of Brent Wilkes, a
contractor mentioned in the Cunningham indictment. Foggo also attended
poker games that Wilkes organized at the Watergate and the Westin Grand
hotels in Washington.
According to press reports, federal investigators
are looking into allegations that the bribery by the military
contractors may have included payments for limousines, poker parties and
prostitutes. [NYT, May 7, 2006]
Between the disarray from CIA departures and the
hint of scandal around Foggo, Goss saw his political stock decline.
Negroponte also reportedly felt that Goss was not adapting well to his
new subordinate position as just one of many intelligence directors.
Meanwhile, Negroponte faced opposition himself from
aggressive neoconservatives who objected to his more tempered assessment
of the threat from Iran’s nuclear program and his hiring of some
intelligence analysts who had objected to Bush’s Iraq WMD claims.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. an original signer of the
neoconservative Project for the New American Century, called for
Negroponte’s firing because of his Iran assessment and his “abysmal
an article for Rev. Sun Myung
Moon’s Washington Times, Gaffney attacked Negroponte for giving top
analytical jobs to Thomas Fingar, who had served as assistant secretary
of state for intelligence and research, and Kenneth Brill, who was U.S.
ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which debunked
some of the U.S. and British claims about Iraq seeking enriched uranium
The State Department’s Office of Intelligence and
Research led the dissent against the Iraq WMD case, especially over what
turned out to be false claims that Iraq was developing a nuclear bomb.
Gaffney specifically faulted Fingar for his testimony against
neoconservative favorite John Bolton to become U.S. ambassador to the
“Given this background, is it any wonder that
Messrs. Negroponte, Fingar and Brill … gave us the spectacle of absurdly
declaring the Iranian regime to be years away from having nuclear
weapons?” wrote Gaffney, who was a senior Pentagon official during the
Gaffney accused Negroponte of giving promotions to
“government officials in sensitive positions who actively subvert the
President’s policies,” an apparent reference to Fingar and Brill.
Iran Cold Water
In an interview with NBC News on April 20,
Negroponte had cited Iran’s limited progress in refining uranium and
their use of a cascade of only 164 centrifuges.
“According to the experts that I consult, achieving
— getting 164 centrifuges to work is still a long way from having the
capacity to manufacture sufficient fissile material for a nuclear
weapon,” Negroponte said. “Our assessment is that the prospects of an
Iranian weapon are still a number of years off, and probably into the
Expressing a similar view about Iran in
a speech at the National Press
Club, Negroponte said, “I think it’s important that this issue be kept
In effect, the DNI was splashing cold water on the more fevered
assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions favored by the neoconservatives
Still, Negroponte appears to have come out on top in this latest
power struggle. On May 5, Bush announced Goss’s abrupt resignation, and
on May 8, Bush named Negroponte’s current deputy, Air Force Gen. Michael
Hayden, to become CIA chief.
While Negroponte’s bureaucratic victory may represent a defeat for
the neoconservatives, it’s not likely to solve the larger problem of a
politicized intelligence community. Though considered more professional
than Goss, Negroponte and Hayden still have shown themselves to be loyal
to Bush’s edicts.
Negroponte sold Bush’s Iraq WMD case at the United Nations and sat
behind Secretary of State Colin Powell during his infamous presentation
to the Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. While running the National
Security Agency, Hayden implemented Bush’s warrantless wiretaps of
Yet, until the larger question of politicization is
addressed – until Bush’s sense of entitlement over the intelligence
community is ended – the problem of the U.S. government’s misuse of
intelligence is likely to continue.
[For more on the history of CIA politicization, see
U.S. Intelligence Failed, Redux.”]