CIA Becomes Political Football

The imminent choice by U.S. President George W Bush of a new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), blasted Friday for “groupthink” and incompetence by a key Congressional committee, is fast becoming the major new battleground between the administration’s hawks and realists.

Senior Bush officials have said the president is virtually certain to nominate a successor – possibly as early as this week – to the hapless George Tenet, whose announced resignation last month took effect Sunday, exactly seven years after he took the job under former President Bill Clinton.

With the departments of Justice and Homeland Security warning of dire new threats from al-Qaeda terrorists – possibly designed to disrupt the November elections – and Friday’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s damning report on the CIA’s performance leading up to the war in Iraq, Bush’s advisers concluded that leaving in place the CIA’s acting director, career officer John McLaughlin, could be interpreted by voters as complacency, particularly if a successful terrorist attack were carried out.

“Now that the CIA has been torn apart [by the Senate Committee], they want to show they’re really serious about getting its act together fast,” said one official. “Keeping McLaughlin in place sends the opposite signal.”

Both the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, and its vice-chairman, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, said much the same Sunday. "You cannot leave in an acting director for six or seven months while you wait for the next [presidential] inauguration, regardless of who is elected,” said Rockefeller. “We cannot take that chance.”

The problem faced by the administration, however, is that it does not yet have a candidate for the position who can be confirmed by the Senate relatively easily and still be acceptable to neoconservative hawks centered around Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.

Three names have gained the most attention to date. Florida Representative Porter Goss, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives and a former CIA officer himself, made no secret of his desire for the job after Tenet made his surprise announcement last month.

Goss has until recently enjoyed relatively good relations with Democrats on the committee, but these have worsened in recent weeks as his public statements have become increasingly partisan, perhaps in hopes of making him more attractive to Bush.

But the bigger problem for Goss is that he was widely considered one of Tenet’s staunchest defenders on Capitol Hill. Both Democrats and some Republicans are now saying the two intelligence committees were far too lax in dealing with Tenet and should have exercised much stronger oversight. Unfortunately for Goss, that was his job.

The two other most prominently mentioned candidates – neither of whom publicly confirmed their interest – are identified with the two major factions that have battled for control of foreign policy within the Bush administration since it took office three and a half years ago.

John Lehman, who served as secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan (1981-89) is a dyed-in-the-wool neoconservative who most recently gained public attention in June when, as a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, he spoke out in defense of Cheney’s continued insistence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may have played some role in the 9/11 catastrophe.

A staunch supporter of Likud governments in Israel, Lehman has long been closely associated – both professionally and ideologically – with a number of other prominent neoconservatives, including former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. After the 9/11 attacks, he signed an open letter published by the neoconservative-dominated Project for the New American Century (PNAC) that urged that Washington overthrow Hussein.

Like other neoconservatives, he has also been a chronic critic of the CIA for allegedly producing overly optimistic assessments of the capabilities and intentions of U.S. foes, from the Soviet Union to Iraq.

Lehman’s nomination would signal a major resurgence of neoconservative influence in the Bush administration after months of steady decline resulting from their overly optimistic predictions about postwar Iraq.

For the same reason, however, his nomination is likely to prove problematic, not only to Democratic senators but to a growing number of their Republican counterparts as well, beginning with Intelligence Committee chairman Roberts himself, who, on releasing the report last week, suggested he would not have supported the war in Iraq if he had known that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

“We need to restrain what are growing U.S. messianic instincts – a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy – by force if necessary,” Roberts said at the end of May in what was taken by most analysts as a parting of the ways between traditionally conservative Republicans in Congress and the neoconservatives in the administration.

The third major candidate for the job, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, would be the most easily confirmed, according to most observers, but his close friendship with his boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as his reputation as a realist, makes him unacceptable to the neocons and other hawks around Cheney and Rumsfeld, who vetoed his appointment as deputy defense secretary early in the administration precisely because they thought he was too close to Powell.

Armitage, one of the original “Vulcans” who advised Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign and served in a senior Pentagon position under Reagan, has generally been to the right of Powell – he has signed a number of PNAC statements, for example – but has also shown, quite openly, contempt for armchair hawks, particularly many of the neoconservatives who have not served in the military. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Armitage is a combat veteran who participated in covert operations in Vietnam.

In a first shot at Armitage’s candidacy, the lead editorial in the neoconservative Wall Street Journal charged “[he] has been consistently wrong about Iran, which will be a principle threat going forward, and he and Colin Powell’s philosophy at the State Department has been to let the bureaucrats run the place. We can think of better choices.”

The Journal did not disclose whom it had in mind for the CIA’s top job, but Lehman has written frequently on its op-ed page.

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.