Lowlights of the Year in Spies, Terror and Intelligence
By Jeff Stein, National Security Editor
December 30, 2005
The year began with fury over intelligence on Iraq.
It ended with fury over intelligence on Americans.
Meanwhile, not since Dustin Hoffman got a root canal at the hands of a Nazi in “Marathon Man” has torture been such a pervasive topic around the office coffee machine — not to mention the front page of your family newspaper.
Following revelations that the CIA maintains a necklace of secret interrogation centers from Europe to Southeast Asia, several countries and the 25-member European Union (which warned that hosting such facilities could be grounds for dismissal) have launched inquiries.
For the White House, could the intelligence business get any worse?
Maybe. Even as the clock ran out on Congress in December, Republicans and Democrats alike on the Senate Intelligence Committee were calling for an investigation into the recently disclosed secret wiretaps on U.S. citizens; a federal judge on the court — whom the Bush administration consulted but did not ask for warrants for the wiretaps — resigned; the Patriot Act was put on five-week life support; and the FBI was struggling to explain why it had files on animal rights groups, antiwar students and liberal Catholics.
That’s a bad year.
As the Senate session ended, Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas was batting away calls for a probe of the National Security Agency, while he had barely started on a long-delayed investigation of whether the White House deliberately manipulated intelligence to stampede the nation into war against Iraq.
There were also calls for the attorney general to appoint an outside prosecutor on NSA intelligence operations, even while the outside prosecutor on the Valerie Plame leak investigation wasn’t yet through.
All this ruckus obscured some other notable developments in intelligence in 2005, both good and not so good.
The big picture, of course, was that another year passed with Osama bin Laden at large, suicide bombers throwing themselves at U.S. troops in Iraq, and al Qaeda spinoffs putting explosives on trains in London.
Vice President Dick Cheney thought U.S. counterterror and homeland security operations were going quite well.
“You know,” he told reporters on Air Force Two as he returned on Dec. 21 from a whirlwind trip to southwestern Asia, “it’s not an accident that we haven’t been hit in four years.”
Dumb luck, some observers think.
One of them is Lee H. Hamilton, the former Indiana Democrat who co-chaired the 9/11 commission.
Back to School
In a quiet talk with a handful of House Democrats in a small room in a tiny caucus room on the third floor of the Rayburn House Office Building on Dec. 15, Hamilton sketched a portrait of U.S. intelligence that seemed like a dark parallel universe to Cheney’s.
At the FBI and the CIA, he told his Hill colleagues, he found management turmoil and “a lack of a hard focus” on the need to make sense of the oceans of intelligence.
He excoriated the repeated calls by the CIA and its oversight committees to recruit and train more human spies. There was an urgent need for better processing and analysis of what the agencies were already getting, he said, adding that intelligence systems are “overwhelmed by information.”
In any event, he said he didn’t think there were many future James Bonds lurking in the sea of white, young, middle class faces he saw in the hallways of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
“You can’t take a burr-headed boy from Indiana and have him infiltrate al Qaeda,” he said, drawing murmurs of agreement from an audience that included Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., and Jane Harman, D-Calif. Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., said he’d like to see a CIA workforce diversity study.
Revealing his frustration, Hamilton said that a cry to “improve human intelligence has been the mantra for a long time. You know what the mantra was in the 1990s? Improve human intelligence. You know what it was in the 1980s? Improve human intelligence. And so on.”
He said the intelligence committees would never have real oversight of the spy agencies unless they could get complete control of the $44 billion U.S. intelligence budget and “make [it] transparent.”
The House and Senate intelligence committees need to grab control and bear down on the problems, he said.
“We’ve got wars going in Iraq and Afghanistan and there’s too much else going on in defense appropriation,” Hamilton said. “Unless you have that budget power, you’re not going to get it done.”
The spy agencies, he said, “play games with you.”
That might be marginally acceptable in a different, more peaceful time, he indicated. But, he said, he and his commission colleagues are “confident” that another al Qaeda attack is coming.
“We know al Qaeda wants to get a nuke; what we don’t know is their capability” of getting one, he said
“I don’t know if it’s the most likely kind of attack we’re facing, but it certainly would be the most devastating.”
Outside the Spotlight
All this tended to blot out the first anniversary, on Dec. 7, of legislation creating the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), perhaps the cardinal recommendation of the 9/11 commission.
It opened for business in May, and it is much too soon to know whether the ODNI, led by veteran Cold War diplomat and erstwhile ambassador to Iraq John D. Negroponte, could really bring order to the 15 fractious agencies of the so-called U.S. intelligence community.
But it was a start.
The top ranks of the CIA and the FBI, meanwhile, continued to churn with high-level comings and goings.
In July, Florida Republican Rep. Porter J. Goss, a former CIA case officer and highly partisan chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, succeeded George J. Tenet as CIA director.
Goss brought along a cadre of Republican congressional aides, and the flow of career CIA managers out the door quickly reached flood levels, accompanied by rafts of woeful headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post about the “politicization” of intelligence — ironic, considering the pre-Iraq war performance of his predecessor.
But not all CIA veterans thought that Goss was leading the agency to ruin.
Melissa Boyle Mahle, who served five undercover tours in the Middle East during her 14 years as a CIA operator, hailed what she called “a long-needed leadership shake-up of senior management.”
But there’s also a steep downside to the departures, Mahle wrote Dec. 20 on her new blog.
“Because of the hiring freeze of the 1990s, there are relatively few officers with more than five years of field experience that can manage operations. We risk decapitating ourselves in the process of re-orienting how we do business.”
To the Rescue
A CIA legend, meanwhile, quietly crossed the Potomac in May and took up residence as the Department of Homeland Security’s first chief intelligence officer.
The arrival of Charlie Allen — an “eccentric workaholic,” in the words of one admirer, who worked on some of the CIA’s most sensitive projects over the past half century — may be the last, best hope for DHS’s long-troubled intelligence shop.
Members of the House Homeland Security Committee practically gushed in welcoming Allen at a hearing in October.
“This is an appointment which is going to be, I believe, extremely beneficial to the Department of Homeland Security,” said committee Chairman Peter T. King of New York.
“Mr. Allen has a very tough job ahead of him, not just in the actual mechanics or the implementation of establishing the intelligence apparatus in the Department of Homeland Security,” King said, “but [in] . . . creating a culture within the department where it speaks with one voice and also where the intelligence is properly used and assessed.”
Hamilton and other experts who have closely observed DHS’s intelligence wing — called Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) — have lamented over the past three years about how it failed to get a solid footing amid the CIA and the FBI, which assumed some of the intelligence functions DHS was created to fill.
Asked to list a few of Allen’s challenges for this article, a senior former intelligence official ended up composing a 650-word bill of particulars about DHS’s intelligence shortcomings that got more gloomy with every paragraph.
“One wonders whether DHS will get its act together to be an important participant in intelligence prior to the next big terrorist act in the U.S.,” he concluded.
But if anyone can do it, he and other analysts said, it is Charlie Allen.
And if he does, that will be the biggest news in U.S. intelligence in 2006 — I hope.
Jeff Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: CQ Homeland Security
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