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Newcomers’ Chokehold on the CIA

Thomas A. Twetten was associate deputy director and then deputy director of operations at the CIA from 1988 through 1993.

The CIA and the intelligence community have been under close congressional oversight for about 30 years. This has sometimes saved the agency from momentary enthusiasms that could have gone badly awry. It has served as a healthy check on the executive branch. Even within the agency, most professionals recognize it as an important, if occasionally frustrating, reality.

But the political culture in Congress is robustly different from the apolitical, professional culture within the intelligence agencies. There is nothing wrong with either culture, but their different needs occasionally get in the way of healthy communication. Staffers of the congressional intelligence committees, for example, whose job is to keep watch over programs, priorities and funds, have been known on occasion to make reckless allegations about the CIA in order to get the ear of the member of Congress they serve.

This difference in attitudes can help explain the rocky start that my old friend Porter Goss, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (with whom I trained as a new operations officer many years ago), has had as the new director of central intelligence. His biggest problem is that he brought with him from Congress four partisan staff members of the Intelligence Committee who have not adjusted from their old role as political advocates and critics. Instead, they are grabbing authority wherever they can and making decisions that should be left to the existing chain of command.

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In only a few weeks, they have exhibited an arrogance that may have served them well on Capitol Hill but is inappropriate -- and counterproductive -- within the agency. Because the CIA is a secret agency, the turmoil caused by these four staffers is not particularly visible to the public, to the executive branch and to congressional supervisors. But turmoil it is.

Last week, for example, Goss’ over-politicized staffers threatened senior CIA officers with demotion if they failed to stem leaks. And the New York Times published excerpts of a memo calling for CIA employees to “support the administration and its policies.”

While fighting these unnecessary political battles, the director of central intelligence and his top staffers have failed to lay out their priorities. Briefings and organized programs have been offered up to the DCI on the nation’s most pressing dangers and priorities, but his staff members have not responded. They’re too busy settling scores with some senior employees who have stood up to them in the past. They’re moving pals into plum positions and promoting those who appear to be malleable. The CIA meritocracy is in jeopardy.

There is plenty of room for change and improvement at the agency. Mistakes have been made in the past, and employees are eager to participate in reform (rather than having it imposed on them). Indeed, the workforce had been responding enthusiastically to the new focus of the recently appointed deputy director of operations, Stephen Kappes, and his No. 2, Michael Sulick. But Kappes and Sulick didn’t last long; they were fired Nov. 15. Or to be more precise, Goss’ aides provoked them into resigning. Why? Again, it was about politics, about punishing enemies and rewarding friends.

Intelligence officers, whatever their specialties, get better with years of experience. They deal with real people and complicated issues, and their ability to judge situations is better honed in 20 years than it is in two. The agency is a meritocracy, in which senior officers mentor middle-grade officers, who in turn teach the young. And it is a team, with a pride in accomplishments that will most likely (and preferably) remain unknown and unsung.

Goss and his minions can do a great deal of damage in short order. If the professional employees in the agency don’t believe the agency’s leadership is on their side, they won’t take risks for it and, in the end, they won’t stay.

There have occasionally been political directors of central intelligence before Goss, and no doubt there will be more in the future. The last one was Bill Casey, who was controversial in Congress. But within the agency, he was both controversial and beloved. His leadership was not a hug; it was tough. But he championed the workforce and its capabilities to contribute to the nation’s security. He fought for the resources to get the job done.

The director of central intelligence is often the only political protection the workforce has. Right now, it appears to have none. I am not sure that the current DCI can recover from the wrong foot his partisan staff has put him on. But I can tell you one thing: He forced out the wrong fellows last week. I am urging CIA employees to stay on, to do their important work. It won’t be easy, but it will take quality employees to put the agency back together when the staffers have gone.


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