- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

CIA Director Porter Goss’s rejection of his inspector general’s recommendation to discipline three former senior officials — Director George Tenet, Deputy Director of Operations James L. Pavitt, and counter-terrorist center head J. Cofer Black — averts a potential crisis for the White House. It was also a necessary quid pro quo that saved the CIA’s preeminence in human-intelligence operations.

Mr. Goss’s dilemma began when CIA Inspector General John Helgerson recommended sanctions against the three for intelligence failures leading up to the attacks of September 11. In the contemporary CIA’s highly-legalistic atmosphere, disciplinary action requires a quasi-judicial review. In anticipation, Mr. Tenet prepared a detailed rebuttal to the charges. His supporters also made it clear that if Mr. Tenet became the September 11 fall guy, he would embarrass the White House with a candid memoir.

This was the background for a stunning about-face by Mr. Goss that has preserved the CIA’s viability in the newly-reformed intelligence community. As chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Goss had been the driving force pushing the CIA to investigate and disclosure September 11-related intelligence failures.

A fascinating series of backroom pressures and deals spared the White House further embarrassment over September 11, got Mr. Tenet off the hook and gave the CIA a new lease on life.

As Congress reviewed the Helgerson report, Mr. Goss submitted a proposal to Director of NationalIntelligenceJohn Negroponte regarding human intelligence programs (HUMINT). Mr. Goss’s proposal called for making the CIA Director “national HUMINT manager” for all fifteen intelligence agencies. Under Mr. Goss’s thinly-veiled proposal to preserve the CIA’s relevancy, Mr. Negroponte had oversight of human intelligence, but CIA kept day-to-day management of human spying.

Mr. Goss, who is no political virgin, understood that Mr. Tenet’s fate, the future of the CIA and Mr. Goss’s own directorship were intimately linked. Mr. Negroponte had the power to give the CIA human-intelligence management, and Mr. Goss had the power to bury the Helgerson report. In case Mr. Goss misunderstood this linkage, key Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence sent Mr. Goss a message by urging Mr. Negroponte to take human-intelligence programs management away from CIA. This would have meant a crushing defeat for Mr. Goss personally and a serious loss of prestige for the CIA. Insiders say Mr. Goss was ready to resign if CIA lost its fifty-year hegemony over human spying operations on his watch.

Mr. Goss responded by resisting pressure to release the report publicly. Last week, he rejected the IG’s call for sanctions, thereby assuring that Mr. Helgerson’s report will stay buried until its declassification in some distant presidency. As soon as Mr. Goss rejected the IG’s recommendations, Mr. Negroponte issued a rare public statement backing up Mr. Goss. With the report classified and accountability boards off the table, neither the specific intelligence lapses nor the officials who made them will be made public so long as there are no leaks.

Next, Mr. Negroponte let a decent interval of exactly one week pass before giving his imprimatur to Mr. Goss’s proposal. The White House is expected to concur soon.

This is a coup for Mr. Goss and the CIA. In exchange for burying the Helgerson report and its potential for political embarrassment, Mr. Goss has salvaged the CIA’s standing in the intelligence community.

Mr. Goss’s rationale for rejecting disciplinary sanctions was that he didn’t want to make CIA officers “risk-averse.” While it is crucial to foster an atmosphere in which CIA officials are willing to take risks without fearing that a career-ending board of inquiry will follow any failure, in this instance Mr. Goss’s rationale doesn’t hold up.

Messrs. Tenet, Pavitt and Black were not criticized, sources report, for taking bold or risky actions that failed to pay off. To the contrary, Mr. Helgerson faulted them for their inaction. Ironically, Mr. Goss’s decision to reject the review boards reinforces the most risk-averse tendency of any bureaucracy, which is to simply maintain the status quo. By turning a blind eye to high-level incompetence, Mr. Goss perpetuates the risk-averse culture of today’s CIA.

But Mr. Goss had little choice. Disciplinary hearings for Mr. Tenet, whose Presidential Medal of Freedom is little more than a year old, would have imperiled Mr. Goss’s standing with the White House and virtually assured the CIA’s loss of control of human intelligence. Now Mr. Goss has a fighting chance to rebuild the CIA’s covert capabilities, expand stations and bases overseas, shift the agency’s reliance on foreign liaison to unilateral intelligence operations, and create the risk-taking CIA he craves.

Although the Helgerson report is history, a fresh problem is brewing for the CIA. There is an agency-wide counterintelligence focus on a suspected Chinese penetration. The Chinese penetration is not believed to rise to the Richard Ames level, according to those familiar with the matter, but it comes at a bad time for a wounded agency struggling to regain its footing.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on terrorism and national security matters.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide