Cui Bono? Negroponte or Rumsfeld?

Monday’s nomination by U.S. President George W. Bush of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden to take over the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from the hapless Porter Goss has predictably intensified speculation over what is really going on behind the scenes.

Most analysts see the shifts as the latest battle between the director of national intelligence (DNI), John Negroponte, and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld in the war over control of the multiple functions of the sprawling, $40-billion-a-year intelligence community.

But opinion appears deeply divided over which bureaucratic titan will emerge as this round’s winner, although few doubt that the unceremonious dismissal of a CIA director who served less than 20 months on the job – particularly by a president who has proven dogged in retaining loyal servants despite strong evidence of incompetence – is filled with portent.

Goss, the former head of the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives, was sent to the CIA ostensibly to implement a reform program designed to resuscitate its covert action and human intelligence-gathering capabilities after the debacle in Iraq.

But he is likely to be remembered chiefly for his "Gosslings," Republican political operatives he brought with him from the House, whose main purpose was to undertake a purge of senior officers whose loyalty to their tradecraft appeared greater than to the policy priorities of the Bush administration, particularly in the Middle East.

By the time of his abrupt resignation Friday, some 16 top officers, including one director and two deputy directors, with a combined 300 years of intelligence experience had fled the agency, leaving "the agency in free fall," according to Goss’ former Democratic colleague on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jane Harman.

Both Negroponte, who last year displaced the CIA director as the president’s chief intelligence adviser, and Bush’s own Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board concluded earlier this year that Goss and his henchmen had to go, although the precipitating factor appears to have been implication in a remarkably unsavory congressional bribery scandal of the CIA’s number three, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, who had been hand-picked by Goss himself.

With Goss out, attention naturally shifted to Hayden, Negroponte’s top deputy and the former head of the Pentagon’s National Security Agency (NSA), who was formally nominated by Bush to the post Monday.

As Bush himself noted, Hayden has served almost his entire career in intelligence, although most of it has been focused on the kinds of signals intelligence – such as satellite spying, eavesdropping, and other forms of electronic surveillance – which is the special province of the NSA, than human intelligence or covert operations. "He knows the intelligence community from the ground up," Bush said Monday.

Admired even by his congressional critics as an excellent and generally candid briefer, Hayden’s institutional and political loyalties, however, remain unclear – a fact that has fueled speculation as to the policy and bureaucratic implications of his nomination.

Perceived as a straight-talking technocrat and effective manager who had largely succeeded in moving the NSA from the Cold War-thinking to the new challenges of the "global war on terror," Hayden was unanimously confirmed by the Senate last year as Negroponte’s deputy.

But his apolitical image has been tarnished – for civil libertarians among Republicans and Democrats alike – by his unexpectedly aggressive public defense over the past several months of the NSA’s post-9/11 domestic-spying program and his refusal to answer key details about it.

Indeed, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter warned Sunday that he will use Hayden’s confirmation hearings to try to pry information about the government’s domestic surveillance effort that the administration has so far refused to share with Congress.

Some critics – already concerned about Hayden’s understanding of constitutional protections against warrantless searches and seizures – also point to reports that Hayden has become a favorite of Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration’s strongest advocate of a virtually all-powerful wartime executive, as a reason to be worried.

"We have to confront the chilling prospect that the incoming head of the CIA believes it’s permissible to conduct warrantless surveillance on the American public," Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the New York Times.

A second concern – also shared by Democrats and Republicans alike, it appears – involves Hayden’s status as a military officer taking control of the CIA, the only major intelligence agency, aside from the DNI’s office, that is headed by a civilian.

"Putting a military person into this role is just a bad idea," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, a right-wing Republican, who told a television interviewer Sunday that Hayden was "the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time." Some Democrats who have criticized what has been called the "over-militarization" of foreign policy have echoed that view.

Nonetheless, the picture may be a good deal more complicated than that, particularly in the context of the broader struggle between the Pentagon and the civilian agencies, particularly the DNI, over control of intelligence.

Hayden is not known for getting along particularly well with Rumsfeld, who, along with his intelligence chief, Stephen Cambone, has been particularly aggressive about giving the military, especially special operations forces, unprecedented authority for carrying out covert operations with minimal CIA. To the great frustration of his civilian bosses, for example, the general testified before Congress in 2004 in favor of transferring control of several intelligence agencies from the Pentagon to the DNI.

As a "former CIA station chief" noted to the Washington Post, "How will Hayden deal with the land-grabbing from the Pentagon? That’s going to be the real fight."

Indeed, the fact that Negroponte actively sought Goss’ ouster and is now sending Hayden to the CIA to as part of a larger turf war against Rumsfeld and Cambone – particularly with respect to covert operations – is seen as particularly threatening to the policy agenda of neoconservative and other hawks who regard the CIA, along with Negroponte’s alma mater, the State Department, as hopelessly "liberal" and thus disloyal to Bush.

"If Negroponte forced Goss out and is allowed to pick Goss’ successor … then Goss’ departure will prove to have been a weakening moment in an administration increasingly susceptible to moments of weakness," the neoconservative Weekly Standard warned this weekend.

The right-wing National Review also smelled a rat, worrying that Goss’ ouster marked a "coup by the [CIA’s] insurgents" to stop the purge against traitorous agency officials that have allegedly been undermining the administration.

For John Prados, a prominent author on national security intelligence, it is far too early to predict, particularly given the gains and momentum built up by the Pentagon largely at the CIA’s expense in budgetary and operational areas during Goss’ tenure.

"It’s always been Rumsfeld versus Negroponte, and Negroponte has not so far demonstrated much ability to rein in Rumsfeld at all," he told IPS. "This could be a victory for Negroponte in the sense that a new director that can breathe life into a fading CIA would re-create an element of resistance against the Pentagon’s aggrandizement. That could improve his situation vis-à-vis Rumsfeld."

At the same time, he said, the latest developments could hasten the CIA’s cannibalization by accelerating the migration of its analytical resources to the DNI and its increasingly nominal control over operations to the Pentagon.

"We may be seeing the tipping point toward the end of the CIA and the increased danger of the fragmentation of the American intelligence community," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.