- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Many Washington observers were surprised when a newly installed, 43rd president, George W. Bush, retained Bill Clinton’s CIA chief, George Tenet, instead of replacing him with a handpicked choice in early 2001.

Those same observers were dumbfounded when Mr. Bush kept Mr. Tenet on as DCI (director of Central Intelligence, the broader and formal title for the person who also heads the Central Intelligence Agency) after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After all, it seemed apparent to just about everyone, the success of those attacks was, if anything, hardly a tribute to the predictive abilities of the team heading the nation’s intelligence apparatus. Yet, Mr. Tenet kept on ticking; apparently having secured the blessing of Bush 43 and, perhaps more importantly, retained the support of Bush 41. Then, in the wake of the weapons of mass destruction intelligence mess in Iraq, when the President still kept Tenet on, Washington insiders threw up their hands in utter disbelief. L’Affair Chalabi is the latest black eye.

Well, Mr. Tenet has finally stepped down. Under pressure or not, next month he’ll leave the job he has held for seven years. While some degree of continuity in leadership will be provided by the president’s decision to move Mr. Tenet’s deputy, John McLaughlin, a career intelligence analyst, into the top spy job, the timing of the shake up could not come at a worse time.

Uncertainty in the intelligence business is never a good thing. Those foreign nationals who spy for us are uneasy about doing so in the best and most stable of times. Asking these friends of the United States to risk their lives and fortunes in a highly charged political climate in which the intelligence business itself is very much an issue, presents a real challenge for our case agents trying to calm the fears of those they manage. The CIA never really likes to be in the news, and especially not for the reasons it finds itself in the spotlight these days. Mr. McLaughlin will be hard pressed to maintain the relatively high degree of agency morale Mr. Tenet has built up, especially as the presidential race heats up. Intelligence is not supposed to be an issue in any presidential race; but the race this year is not one in which traditional rules prevail.

Still, Mr. McLaughlin is a man possessed of considerable intelligence and his long career in the CIA, quietly and methodically working his way up the ladder on merit, indicates he is well-versed in bureaucratic in-fighting. He will need all his skills — and more — to maintain the one thing that heretofore has been the CIA’s stock-in-trade, and yet which has been lacking in recent years: its objectivity. He’ll also need the active support of Mr. Bush. Whether he gets it is very much up in the air.

The reason the active support of the president is so critical to the ultimate success not only of Mr. McLaughlin’s tenure (whether or not he is nominated to serve as DCI), but also of the survival of the CIA as we know it, is that the military arm of our intelligence community is seriously flexing its considerable muscles. It smells uncertainty across suburban Virginia at CIA headquarters, and is already moving in for the kill.

The military has been hankering for supremacy ever since the CIA Act of 1949 placed — at least on paper — the top position in the hands of a civilian agency. While there have been military CIA chiefs, this has been the exception rather than the rule; and for good reason. Now, more than ever, the United States does not need a military person as head of Central Intelligence. Yet at perhaps no time in recent history has the power of the military establishment been better poised to do just that.

The parochial views and uses of intelligence by the military, which necessarily are not guided by the overall foreign policy parameters of a president’s national security goals, are, in at least some respects, what has gotten us into the Iraqi mess in the first place. By using intelligence to justify and lay the groundwork for a military operation — the invasion of Iraq — rather than to help define and accomplish the broader foreign policy goal — defeating terrorism as a political force — intelligence became a tool to accomplish a short-term objective to the detriment of a long-term strategic goal.

If in fact Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his military intelligence team, headed by Defense Under Secretary Stephen Cambone, are able to take advantage of the leadership uncertainty at the CIA, and if Mr. Bush allows this to happen or encourages it by naming a military person to replace Mr. Tenet, then the goal of a truly independent foreign intelligence apparatus to serve the president objectively — a goal the Defense Department has resisted for 55 years — will be unceremoniously laid to rest. The mistakes of the past will be, sadly, then repeated.

The author served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003, and was an official with the CIA during most of the 1970s.

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