Seeking Integrity at the CIA

Editor’s Note: An underlying factor in the national security crises confronting the United States has been the corruption of the US. intelligence process, with analyses tailored to fit the desires of the policymakers and with laws bent to permit torture and other abuses.

In this guest essay, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern reflects on what went wrong and what now needs to go right:

The Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) must be a person whose previous professional performance has been distinguished by unimpeachable integrity and independence. The director must have the courage of his or her own convictions.

Without integrity and courage, all virtue is specious, and no amount of structural or organizational reform will make any difference.

Though a 2004 law gave most of the DCI’s intelligence community-wide authority to the new position of Director of National Intelligence – after the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks and after the false intelligence analysis on Iraq’s WMDs – the same principles regarding integrity and courage apply to the DNI.

Instructive lessons can be drawn from the performance of George Tenet, the sixteenth CIA director since the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, and from his predecessors regarding what attributes a director needs to discharge the duties of the office as the National Security Act of 1947 intended.

The director should have already made a mark on the world by excelling in a field unrelated to intelligence work – business, the military or academia – bringing a well-established record of honesty and competence.

If he comes from more humble circumstances than most top administration officials, it is essential that her or his strength of character and self-confidence be such that there is no need to depend on the anointing of Washington hoi aristoi for reassurance of self worth.

These qualities are all the more essential because of the mismatch of responsibility and authority in the Director of Central Intelligence’s position.

As the chief foreign intelligence adviser to the President, the director has broad responsibility for coordinating the intelligence effort of a dozen agencies of government, but has little operational or budgetary control over most of them. As a result, the director’s authority is essentially ad referendum to the President.

Too many Directors of Central Intelligence, out of a desire to be good team players, have been reluctant to seek and invoke that authority. A notable exception was Admiral Stansfield Turner, whose military background instilled in him an acute appreciation of the need for command authority to match responsibility.

Turner knew he had to take determined steps to dispel the ambiguity – and did. Thus, when the parochial interests of, say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the National Security Agency got in the way of his intelligence community coordinating responsibilities, Turner would simply meet with President Carter and lay it on the line.

"If you want me to be able to discharge my responsibilities as your principal intelligence adviser," he would say, "you need to tell the Attorney General to instruct the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be more responsive, and the Secretary of Defense to tell the National Security Agency to do the same."

In other words, there is a way to deal with the anomalies inherent in the director’s portfolio, but it takes a DCI who is willing to put noses out of joint in order to assert the necessary authority to do his job. Such directors have been few and far between.

What Tenet Should Have Said

To be concrete, let’s take the experience of George Tenet as an example. Here are a few of the things he should have told the President:

• The FBI is not sharing with my people the information they need. Would you instruct the Attorney General to tell the bureau to cooperate?

• The Vice President and Secretary of Defense have each established, in their offices, mini-CIAs to push their own agendas. They are using their privileged access to you to promote intelligence judgments with which my analysts and I do not agree. If you wish me to be able to discharge my statutory duties effectively, please make it clear to them that they are required to vet such analysis with the Central Intelligence Agency so that we can put it into perspective before it is given to you.

• The same goes for raw reporting from the field or from liaison intelligence services. I am particularly upset that Israel regularly skirts established procedures and gives raw information to top White House and Pentagon officials before Central Intelligence Agency analysts have time to evaluate it. Quite aside from the fact that by law I am responsible for substantive liaison with foreign services, serious mischief can result when the Central Intelligence Agency is not able to comment on key reports before they are acted upon. Think back to June of 2002, for example, when, on the strength of an Israeli report that the CIA had not had a chance to evaluate properly, you were persuaded to reverse the longstanding American policy of recognizing Yasir Arafat as the duly elected representative of the Palestinian people. Surely, if the crescendo of violence over recent years has proven anything, it is that Arafat simply cannot be left out.

• You need to ensure that the Central Intelligence Agency and other parts of the intelligence community have the opportunity to provide appropriate intelligence input before major decisions are made. Think, for example, of the sudden, arbitrary decision by Ahmad Chalabi, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Ambassador Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi army. Were my people given the chance, they could have told you that would be a very dumb idea.

• Experience – including mine – has shown that it is counterproductive over the long run for the DCI to have advocated for or become associated with any particular policy. I should have known better than to become so closely associated with the "Tenet Plan" for Israel-Palestine. How, for example, can my analysts retain any credibility for objective assessment of that plan’s prospects for success when it bears my name?

The Director of Central Intelligence must not need the job; and he must have the self-confidence and courage to resign when the demands of integrity dictate this as the only honorable course. Should the President refuse to honor the kind of requests I have just illustrated, the DCI should give very serious consideration to resigning.

Directors of Central Intelligence cannot let themselves be used, as the Vice President and Defense Secretary used Tenet, for example. Historically, depending on who was President at the time, several DCIs had the experience of being marginalized by the White House. And some, like William Colby, were fired. But Colby’s marginalization and eventual firing came as a result of his standing on principle (and standing up to Henry Kissinger), not for letting himself be used.

It is a myth that the DCI must enjoy a close personal relationship with the President. In fact, doing so is a net minus. The White House is not a fraternity house; mutual respect is far more important than camaraderie. A mature, self-confident President will respect an independent director. The director must avoid being "part of the team" in the way the President’s political advisers are part of the team.

Team Work

Overly close identification with "the team" can erode objectivity and cloud intelligence judgments.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, like Vice President Dick Cheney a frequent visitor to CIA headquarters to "help" with analysis on Iraq, told the press that Director Tenet was "so grateful to the President [presumably for not firing him after Sept. 11, 2001] that he would do anything for him." That attitude is the antithesis of what is needed in a director.

A DCI who has built a relationship of mutual respect with the President does not need to join the briefer who presents the President’s Daily Brief. It is far better to encourage those senior analysts to brief, as we did in the past, unencumbered by a boss looking over our shoulder.

And in ordinary circumstances, one session with the President per week should be enough face-time to discuss key substantive issues and, when necessary, Central Intelligence Agency operations.

As a general rule, a DCI should not be drawn from the operational ranks of the agency. Major mistakes made by Allen Dulles, Richard Helms and William Casey provide ample proof that having a spy at the helm is a poor idea. (William Colby, who had an unusually wide grasp of the analytic as well as the operational function of intelligence – and a keen respect for the Constitution – was a notable exception to this guideline.)

A director has to be a wise manager. The director must be able to function effectively while standing astride the structural fault created by the National Security Act of 1947, which allowed for DCI involvement in operational matters in addition to the director’s primary role as chief substantive intelligence adviser to the President.

This unenviable, schizophrenic portfolio demands uncommon self-confidence, objectivity, balance, and skill – and, again, integrity.

Among those who failed the test were Dulles, with the Bay of Pigs disaster; Helms, who, while running large-scale operations in Vietnam, knowingly acquiesced in General William Westmoreland’s deceptively low estimates of Vietnamese Communist troop strength; and Casey, with his personal involvement in an array of misadventures in Central America and Iran/Contra, his cooking of intelligence to promote and support those escapades, and his unswerving devotion to the idea that the Soviet Union could never change.

The congressional hearings on Iran-Contra and on Robert Gates’s nomination to head the agency revealed many examples of how Casey and Gates politicized intelligence analysis. Although appointed by the President, a Director of Central Intelligence needs to resist pressure to play politics.

Some Directors of Central Intelligence have played the political game – most of them ineptly, it turns out. Helms, for example, bent over backwards to accommodate President Nixon – to the point of perjuring himself before Congress.

Yet Helms never could overcome Nixon’s paranoid suspicion of him as one of that "Georgetown crowd out to get me." Chalk it up to our naiveté as intelligence analysts, but we were shocked when James Schlesinger, upon succeeding Helms as director early in Nixon’s first term, announced on arrival, "I am here to see that you guys don’t screw Richard Nixon!"

The freshly appointed DCI supplemented the news about his main mission by announcing that he would be reporting to Bob Haldeman, not Henry Kissinger.

No Political Agenda

A director must not have a political agenda. Ironically – and to his credit – George H.W. Bush, who had been chair of the Republican National Committee before being named Director of Central Intelligence, was careful to avoid policy advocacy.

But even he found it impossible to resist political pressure to appoint "Team B," a group of extreme hardliners, to review intelligence community estimates on Soviet strategic forces.

Neither must a Director of Central Intelligence have a personal agenda.

The tenure of John Deutch provided a case study in the disasters that can attend overweening ambition on the part of a director. Deutch made no secret that he was accepting the job only as a way station to replacing his close friend William Perry as Secretary of Defense.

Thus, it should have come as no surprise that Deutch made rather callous, calculated decisions to improve the chances for his candidacy.

Deutch gave the Pentagon his full cooperation in covering up the fact for several years that about 101,000 (the Pentagon’s current estimate) US. troops were exposed to chemical warfare agents, including sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gases, at the end of the Gulf War.

And in 1996 he ceded the Central Intelligence Agency’s entire imagery analysis capability to the Pentagon, lock, stock, and barrel.

Deutch was devastated when President Bill Clinton picked William Cohen to succeed Perry, and he left the Central Intelligence Agency with such a long trail of grave security violations that he needed one of President Bill Clinton’s last-day pardons to escape prosecution.

(Deutch’s personal agenda was so transparent that, aside from the people he brought with him to the Central Intelligence Agency to do his bidding, there was hardly a soul sorry to see him go.)

No Director of Central Intelligence should come from Congress, the quintessential example of the kind of politicized ambience that is antithetical to substantive intelligence work. For example, outside intelligence circles, it was deemed a good sign that, as a congressional staffer, George Tenet had been equally popular on both sides of the aisle.

But this raised a red flag for seasoned intelligence professionals. As we had all learned early in our careers, if you tell it like it is, you are certain to make enemies. Those enjoying universal popularity are ipso facto suspect of perfecting the political art of compromise – shading this and shaving that.

However useful this may be on the Hill, it sounds the death knell for intelligence analysis. In addition to having come from Congress, Tenet had zero prior experience managing a large organization. He played the political game, and he has presided over two disasters: September 11 and Iraq.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).