Overhaul of CIA Chief’s Job Debated

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Times Staff Writer

The post of CIA director, one of the most demanding and perilous in government, may be a fundamentally flawed job that makes it impossible for most occupants to succeed, experts and lawmakers said.

With his resignation last week, George J. Tenet became the latest in a long line of spy chiefs to leave office badly bruised by the experience. The track record is so dismal that some lawmakers have argued that the position should be dramatically restructured before Tenet’s permanent replacement is selected.

“The resignation presents a huge opportunity, and I don’t think the conversation should be about who replaces George Tenet as DCI,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “It should be about how to change the DCI job so that the replacement can be successful.”


The job of director of central intelligence, known as DCI, is specific and broad: The person directly leads the CIA and also heads the complex federation of the other 14 agencies that form the intelligence-gathering community. Longtime CIA veterans say it is hard to identify a director who left the job on his own terms, on his own timetable, with his reputation intact.

Some, such as Bay of Pigs planner Allen W. Dulles, have been fired for embarrassing intelligence failures. Others, such as accused Iran-Contra architect William J. Casey, left behind legacies of scandal and abuse of power.

Several were so disliked by the agency’s clandestine operatives that they were undermined in the job and departed in frustration. And a few who managed to avert major controversy were pushed out by politics before they were ready to quit.

The proposal for change that has gained the most traction is to split the CIA director job in two -- one person would run the CIA and another would head a new Cabinet-level position with broad budgetary and hiring-and-firing authority over all the agencies in the intelligence community.

Harman has sponsored legislation in the House that would create a director of national intelligence. The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to consider the idea during hearings this month, and inserted language in this year’s intelligence authorization bill left open the possibility of enacting that and other reforms. The proposal also has the backing of members of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, which is expected to deliver its final report next month and issue a host of recommendations to the Bush administration and Congress.

Some lawmakers and prominent members of the intelligence community -- including Tenet -- argue against a major restructuring of the CIA director’s job. But there is widespread agreement among CIA veterans and intelligence experts that the job is one of the most perilous in the upper ranks of government.


“I’m not sure that secretaries of State and Defense would agree that CIA directors get more beat up than they do,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, former general counsel at the CIA. “But there is something about the intelligence chief job that is particularly demanding and particularly risky. Many of [its former occupants] feel they left with considerable scar tissue.”

Tenet, who has spent seven years as CIA director, lasted longer than all but one of his predecessors. But his tenure was tainted by two of the most serious intelligence lapses in recent history -- the Sept. 11 attacks and the yet unproved claims that Iraq had stockpiles of banned weapons. Tenet’s departure was considered overdue by many on Capitol Hill, and was announced with surprisingly little fanfare by President Bush.

When he took the job in 1997, Tenet was the fifth director at the agency in five years, a revolving door that reflected the extraordinary challenges of the job. Tenet’s immediate predecessor, John M. Deutch, was reviled by the agency’s clandestine branch and had his security clearances stripped after classified files -- as well as pornography -- were found on his home computer.

R. James Woolsey, who served as President Clinton’s first CIA director, was hounded by criticism that he was too lenient with agency officials implicated in the Aldrich Ames spy case. Woolsey quit after less than two years in the job largely because he felt frozen out by Clinton.

Woolsey still jokes that when a Cessna airplane crashed into the South Lawn of the White House in 1994, administration insiders assumed it was the CIA director “trying to get an appointment with Clinton.”

Current and former CIA officials cite an array of reasons for the high failure rate in the top job, starting with the fact that the agency’s mission involves covert operations that, when exposed, often make the public blanch.


“Americans don’t like deception and they don’t like dishonesty, and there is some of that inherent in the nature of being a spy,” said Smith, the former general counsel.

There are also the political dimensions. CIA directors are supposed to offer unvarnished -- and sometimes unwelcome -- analyses to presidents who often have firm ideas and ideological agendas. Tenet was often criticized for being too reluctant to displease his bosses.

Past directors with sterling reputations have lost favor with presidents for delivering unpopular assessments, even when they later proved prescient.

John A. McCone, Dulles’ highly regarded successor, is said to have had a falling out with President Lyndon B. Johnson after the CIA director warned that Johnson would have to do more to win in Vietnam and that the U.S. would become “mired in combat in the jungle in a military effort that we cannot win and from which we will have extreme difficulty extracting ourselves.” Johnson didn’t want to hear pessimistic assessments and sidelined McCone, who later resigned.

CIA directors have often complained that the public gets a distorted view of their records because successes are almost always kept secret, while agency failures are paraded before the public. In his resignation speech at the agency, Tenet lamented that multiple CIA operations that had saved lives would be “forever unknown and uncounted.”

The CIA director who is most often mentioned as having emerged unscathed is William H. Webster, a former FBI director who served at the helm of the CIA from 1987 to 1991. Webster is credited with restoring public confidence after Casey’s Iran-Contra abuses.


Two other former CIA directors who emerged with solid reputations are George H.W. Bush, who later became president, and Robert M. Gates, who served in the first Bush administration. But Bush was CIA director for only a year, and Gates less than two. Both wanted to keep their jobs but were pushed out by a change in administration.

President Bush recently signaled that he was open to a significant overhaul of the intelligence community. But few expect the administration to act before the November election.

Proponents of splitting the job say the task of running the CIA and overseeing the rest of the community is almost impossible, partly because the CIA director has limited authority. He can’t hire and fire heads of other agencies, and 80% of the intelligence budget is controlled by the Pentagon because so many of the other intelligence agencies are related to the Defense Department.

CIA directors are ordinarily “so absorbed with running the one agency they don’t do a very good job of looking at the issues that will affect the entire community,” said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But skeptics express concern that dividing the job will only lead to new problems. In testimony before the Sept. 11 commission in April, Tenet expressed misgivings about the idea, saying it would create a harmful new layer between the president and the analysts and operatives of the CIA.

A new intelligence czar would also mean a demotion for the CIA director, an erosion of the authority of the secretary of Defense, and would create the daunting task of riding herd on the details of 15 separate intelligence agencies, Tenet said.


“The person you describe probably would survive for about 20 minutes in terms of what’s going on in this town,” he said.



The intelligence community

The director of central intelligence heads the CIA and leads a federation of executive branch agencies and organizations that conduct intelligence activities on behalf of the United States.

Intelligence collection and analysis is the sole mission of five agencies:

Central Intelligence Agency: Provides foreign intelligence on national security topics to national policymakers.

Defense Intelligence Agency: Provides military intelligence to policymakers and war planners.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency: Provides maps, charts and other geospatial instruments in support of national security.

National Reconnaissance Office: Coordinates collection and analysis of information from airplane and satellite reconnaissance by the military services and the CIA.


National Security Agency: Collects and processes foreign intelligence. Protects critical U.S. information security systems.

Other government organizations also have intelligence responsibilities:

Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps intelligence organizations: Collect and process intelligence relevant to their particular service.

Coast Guard intelligence: Deals with information related to U.S. maritime borders and homeland security.

Federal Bureau of Investigation: Deals with counterespionage and data about international criminal cases.

Energy Department: Performs analyses of foreign nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation and energy-related intelligence issues in support of national security.

Department of Homeland Security: Works to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States.


State Department: Deals with information affecting U.S. foreign policy.

Treasury Department: Collects and processes information that may affect U.S. fiscal and monetary policy.

Source: Central Intelligence Agency

Los Angeles Times