Thursday, January 8, 2009

In selecting Leon Panetta as head of the CIA, Mr. Obama has chosen a trusted person whose loyalty is assured, a person he will support when the going gets tough. George W. Bush erred in not immediately replacing CIA chief George Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration.

The CIA is meant to be America’s early warning system, providing the intelligence that is used to prevent attack. But the CIA has become a bureaucratic creature, loyal only to itself, and its ability to produce human source intelligence is dismal. Reliance upon it is our major national security weakness.

Americans may disagree on the reasons for our lack of preparedness prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and our response to those attacks in the subsequent Afghan and Iraq wars, but we should agree that much of the intelligence provided to President Bush by the CIA was false or nonexistent.

Americans may disagree on whether Mr. Bush’s associates should have been charged over the Valerie Plame affair - the revelation of the identity of a CIA Headquarters officer in a newspaper column, allegedly with involvement of White House officials - but we should agree that the CIA and its employees certainly had an uncanny knack for being intimately involved in the crises that threatened the Bush presidency. That the CIA served President Bush poorly doesn’t make it the Democrats’ ally.

The current head, Michael Hayden, should be removed as soon as possible. He’ll go off to enrich himself by joining the boards of the CIA contracting companies he has helped make wealthy. Mr. Hayden has presided over the extraordinary growth of the CIA within the United States and its corresponding lack of hard intelligence-gathering ability overseas. I met Mr. Hayden once, in Baghdad. He gave a surreal speech about how he intended to create even more offices and headquarters within the United States, just in case some of them were destroyed or lost their electricity in a massive attack against the Northeastern U.S.

Mr. Tenet and Mr. Hayden were placid Washington civil servants of neutral loyalties, quickly co-opted by the CIA bureaucracy.

Fierce loyalty to Mr. Obama must be the first requirement of the new CIA chief. He should not only prevent the CIA from undermining Mr. Obama but push the CIA to change, to perform, to provide the intelligence that will help avoid another Bay of Pigs, Iranian hostage crisis, Iraq weapons of mass destruction controversy or any of the modern foreign policy crises in which the CIA’s incompetence has undercut presidents.

No espionage experience is necessary. Espionage is not hard to understand - it’s a CIA officer gathering secrets from a human source in a dingy hotel room in a dysfunctional country. There’s no mystery about what needs to be done at the CIA: Get officers overseas into target countries, reduce fraud and corruption. Get the intelligence the president needs to defend America and our allies.

CIA bureaucrats must be made to understand that their new boss holds the full support of the president of the United States. Only two CIA chiefs in recent decades have sought to bring change to the CIA: John Deutch,a Democratic appointee, and Porter Goss, a Republican, and both were quickly expelled from their positions by CIA bureaucrats. Mr. Obama must back his choice squarely in the face of certain and ferocious CIA rebellion to any change.

While 9 in 10 voters told pollsters the economy was their greatest concern, America remains the richest and most powerful economy in the history of mankind. But a dirty bomb attack on a U.S. city, or the nuclear destruction of the cities of an ally like Britain or Israel, will jar Americans’ attention back to terrorism.

A president’s duty is to protect Americans. If Mr. Obama, the candidate of change, proves to have exposed Americans to attack by not introducing change to the American institution most in need of it, he will no longer be our president in four years, and history will remember him as an excellent orator but a failed leader.

Ishmael Jones is a former Central Intelligence Agency case officer who focused on human sources with access to intelligence on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. His assignments included more than 15 years of continuous overseas service. He is the author of, “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture,” the first book written by a deep-cover CIA case officer. All author book profits are donated to veterans’ groups.

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