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Age of Obama
Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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George W. Bush's presidency, 2000-04

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Contra drug stories uncovered

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America's tainted historical record

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The 1980 election scandal exposed.

From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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Why Obama Dodges CIA Reform

By Melvin A. Goodman
February 4, 2010

Editor’s Note: Since the Reagan era, few members of Congress – or for that matter, American journalists – have dared to strongly criticize the U.S. intelligence community for fear of having their patriotism questioned as a “blame-America-firster.”

This quarter-century pattern has continued into the Obama administration with the President and leading congressional Democrats tip-toeing around the need for a major overhaul of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, as ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

New presidents (and President Barack Obama is no exception) fall in love with three Washington institutions: the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and Camp David.

The Camp David love affair makes sense; it contributes to the President's physical and mental health. The infatuation with the military and intelligence communities, however, can create serious problems for both the administration and the nation.

President John F. Kennedy learned this lesson during the Bay of Pigs in 1961, but he recovered the following year to avoid humiliating diplomatic and military blunders during the Cuban missile crisis.

The suicide bombing attempt on Christmas Day as well as the successful suicide bombing of a sensitive CIA base in Afghanistan should be President Obama's wake-up call regarding the dysfunctional state of the intelligence community.

Both events point to systemic failures at the major intelligence institutions. Unfortunately, there is no sign of a learning curve for the Obama administration in dealing with the intelligence community.

What the CIA should be and what it should do is less clear than at any time since the beginning of the Cold War. There should have been major reform of the intelligence community with the end of the Cold War, but there was none.

The intelligence failures that contributed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks created an opportunity for reform, but the flawed thinking of the 9/11 Commission and the Congressional rush to judgment led to changes that have made a bad situation worse.

The creation of a Director of National Intelligence (DNI), tied directly to the White House, has led to an even more centralized system of intelligence that stifles creative thinking and increases the risk of politicized intelligence.

The establishment of a National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) did not prevent the near calamity on Christmas Day, despite the collection of sufficient intelligence to stop the Nigerian would-be suicide bomber.

The serious problems that need to be addressed include the militarization of the intelligence community, which must be reversed; the weakness of oversight over a flawed intelligence process, which must be restored; the illegal actions of the National Clandestine Service, which must be investigated; and the impact of the reforms of the 9/11 Commission, which must be corrected.

President Obama's failure to request a National Intelligence Estimate before making his decision to place more troops in Afghanistan conveys a recognition that the intelligence community lacks credibility. But no steps have been taken to reverse the steady decline of a deteriorating institution. What needs to be done?

Demilitarize the Intelligence Community

The Bush administration boasted of a marriage between the Pentagon and the CIA, and the Obama administration has done nothing to weaken the connecting tissue between the two bureaucracies.

The Department of Defense is the chief operating officer of the $75 billion intelligence agency, controlling more than 85 percent of the intelligence budget and intelligence personnel.

The undersecretary of defense for intelligence, a retired general officer, has veto power over the ability of the DNI, the so-called intelligence czar, to transfer personnel and budgetary authority from one intelligence agency to another intelligence agency.

The Pentagon has moved into the fields of clandestine collection and covert action, without the constraints of oversight that theoretically limit the undercover activities of the CIA.

The military dominates the field of satellite imagery and analysis that is used to critique the defense budget, to gauge the likelihood of military conflict in the third world and to verify and monitor arms control agreements.

The military command has wrenched control of two of the three most important positions in the intelligence community from the civilian leadership, with retired general or flag officers now serving as intelligence czar and as undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Meanwhile, the CIA is becoming a paramilitary institution and neglecting its primary mission to provide strategic intelligence to policymakers.

Revive Oversight of the Intelligence Community

President Obama's greatest (and most inexplicable) failing in his stewardship of the intelligence community has been his unwillingness to enforce genuine oversight of the CIA.

The President does not want to assign blame or search for scapegoats, but he fails to understand the premise that an honest review and investigation are needed in order to learn the lessons of the past and avoid repeating past mistakes in the future.

The decline of the CIA has coincided with the reduced oversight role by the Congressional intelligence committees, which were established in the 1970s as elite, bipartisan committees.

Unfortunately, the Gingrich revolution in the Congress in 1993-1994 had a partisan impact on the intelligence committees, permitting increased power for the Senate and House armed services committees in monitoring the intelligence community.

The oversight committees have become advocates for the CIA, particularly for its clandestine operators. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, have demonstrated no interest in returning a statutory Inspector General (IG) to the CIA or in pursuing agency excesses in renditions, detentions and interrogations (known by the acronym RDI) as well as the Pentagon's domestic surveillance and collection of intelligence and the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping.

Public accountability must be re-established in order to restore the integrity and credibility of the entire intelligence community.

Nearly one year ago, the IG of the CIA announced his retirement. The IG, John Helgerson, was responsible for important investigations and inspections of CIA failures, including the 9/11 failure, the shooting down of a missionary plane over Peru, and the CIA's RDI program.

Not only has the President refused to name a replacement for Helgerson, he has named a former deputy director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, to investigate the Christmas Day intelligence failure.

McLaughlin is known throughout the intelligence community for his participation in providing false intelligence to the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war, as well as his efforts to cover up the important findings of Helgerson's IG reports.

The Obama administration named John Dunlop to investigate CIA's use of torture and abuse, although Dunlop has dragged his heels investigating the CIA's destruction of the torture tapes. This combination of factors ensures that the agency culture of cover-up will continue to prevail.

Reform Clandestine Operations and Covert Action

If the Cold War and the Soviet threat generated the rules that governed the use of covert action, then the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union demanded a re-examination of clandestine operations, creating new requirements and, perhaps, fewer operations.

Despite the failures of covert action, virtually every reform proposal, such as the Brown Commission in 1996 and the 9/11 Commission in 2004, called for more spending on such operations.

The fact that the CIA's National Clandestine Service wittingly passed tainted intelligence to several US presidents in the 1980s and 1990s that was obtained from Soviet and Russian double agents was reason enough for a major shakeup of the clandestine corps.

The misuse of clandestine tradecraft that led to the successful suicide bombing of the CIA's most important facility in Afghanistan points to the urgent need for reform.

Past failures of the system include the CIA's support for military organizations in Central America despite their long history of human rights abuses; regime change and assassination plots in Iran, Chile, Vietnam, Cuba, the Congo and Guatemala; and the misuse of fabricated or specious intelligence collection in order to politicize intelligence.

President Obama has not addressed these problems and, moreover, he has permitted the CIA's ideological drivers for the RDI program (Steven Kappes and Michael Sulick) to manage the agency.

Revisit the "Reforms" of the 9/11 Commission

The 9/11 Commission failed to use the powers it had been given to explore the reasons for the successful terrorist attacks in 2001, deferring unnecessarily to the White House's use of "executive privilege" and CIA Director George Tenet's refusal to allow commissioners to debrief prisoners held by the CIA.

Worst of all, the commission created a new bureaucratic structure for intelligence that has weakened the community. The commission's recommendations led to the creation of the DNI and the NCTC, the two institutions most responsible for the near disaster on Christmas Day.

The DNI failed to allocate additional resources to the problems of Yemen and al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, despite sufficient intelligence collection pointing to increased terrorist activity. The DNI also failed to create a High-Value Interrogation Group, which could have been used to interrogate the Nigerian bomber, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

The NCTC failed to develop a sophisticated Google-type search tool for its database that would have allowed a successful search for Abdulmutallab, whose name had various phonetic spellings. The State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA also contributed to the Christmas Day failure.

President Obama indirectly conceded that the entire intelligence system had failed when he deplored the fact that "no one intelligence entity or team or task force was assigned responsibility for doing a follow-up investigation" of the intelligence collection on the Nigerian bomber, his trip to Yemen, and his contacts with al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

In other words, more than eight years after the 9/11 attacks and nearly seven decades after Pearl Harbor, we still lacked a centralized operational system capable of exploiting the excellent intelligence collected to prevent attacks against the United States.

New, Old Failures

There is a serious difference between the current CIA failures and past CIA failures. The CIA corruption of the 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War led to the creation of the Congressional oversight committees as well as a Congressional review function for covert action.

The Iran-Contra scandal of 1986-1988 led to the creation of a statutory or independent IG at the CIA, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. But the 9/11 and Iraq war intelligence failures, marked by bureaucratic corruption and incompetence at the CIA, have not been accompanied by a reform effort designed to correct systemic failures.

The Obama administration has sought no accountability for the CIA's extra-legal activities in RDI, and has authorized greater use of CIA drone attacks, which have contributed to instability in Pakistan and increased anti-American feeling throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

The Congressional oversight committees have not investigated the extra-legal activities of the post-9/11 era, and the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to support its chairman's call for a bipartisan accounting of these activities.

The failures of the DNI and the NCTC in the Christmas Day events and the National Clandestine Service in the suicide bombing in Afghanistan have been similarly glossed over.

The Congressional oversight committees have not examined the use of CIA aircraft in Pakistan, which have resulted in numerous civilian losses and threaten the stability of an ostensible ally in the confrontation with terrorism.

In a democracy, where laws are derived from broad principles of right and wrong and where those principles are protected by agreed procedures, it is not in the interest of the state to flout those procedures at home, or to permit extra-legal activities abroad, which have complicated the task of maintaining credible relations with our allies in the battle against terrorism.

The CIA's most important mission remains the preparation of independent analysis of international issues for senior decision makers; therefore, it is essential to protect the integrity of objective and balanced intelligence.

The CIA gives far too much attention to support for the Pentagon and to current intelligence. In the past, CIA analysis served to contradict or at least temper the worst-case analysis of the Pentagon, but this is no longer the case.

President Harry Truman created the CIA to produce strategic intelligence that was not beholden to policy and political interests; President Obama must restore this mission.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This story originally appeared at]

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