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The Trouble with the CIA

That assignment came to an abrupt end in March 1995 when Baer, once seen as a rising star of the DO, suddenly found himself “the subject of an accusatory process.” An agent of the FBI told him he was under investigation for the crime of plotting the assassination of Saddam Hussein. The investigation was ordered by President Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, who would be nominated to run the agency two years later. The Baer investigation was only one of many reasons that the intelligence organizations resisted Lake, forcing him to withdraw his name in 1997, and clearing the way for George Tenet.

Eventually, the case against Baer was dismissed with the help of the Washington lawyer Jeffrey Smith, who served as the agency’s general counsel under John Deutch. But for Baer the episode was decisive. “When your own outfit is trying to put you in jail,” he told me, “it’s time to go.”

Baer’s was one of many resignations in recent years; the dissidents’ portrait of the agency which follows comes from him, from Howard Hart, from another veteran DO operator and former chief of station in Amman, Jordan, named David Manners, and from others who preferred not to be identified. They have differing career histories and views but on some things they agree. The Clinton years, in their view, saw a crippling erosion of the agency’s position in Washington. Its leadership is now timid and its staff demoralized. Top officials, they say, worry more about the vigilantes of political correctness than the hard work of collecting intelligence in the field. The shock of discovering Aldrich Ames in 1994 was followed by a period of destructive self-criticism.

That was the beginning of the ‘Shia’ era in the agency,” said Manners. He was referring to the branch of Islam, centered in Iran, which stresses the unworthiness and sinfulness of man. “We all had to demonstrate our penance,” Manners told me. “Focus groups were organized, we ‘reengineered’ the relationship of the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence.” This meant dropping the bureaucratic wall between the analysts and the covert operators and introducing “uniform career standards.” Henceforth a year in some country where it was dangerous to drink the water would get you no farther up the ladder than a year pushing paper in Langley. When John Deutch came in he appointed as chief of operations an analyst, David Cohen, who had never supervised an agent or even asked the chief of a foreign intelligence service to share information from his files. This was the era of “process action teams” which studied managerial questions like what sort of paperwork to use for agent handling. A committee of a dozen, split between case officers and analysts, might spend half a day wrestling with such questions twice a week for a year or more. “Navel gazing,” Manners calls it.

In the reengineered CIA it was possible for Deborah Morris to be appointed the DO’s deputy chief for the Near East. “Her husband was thrown out of Russia in 1994,” said one of the dissidents, referring to James L. Morris, the Moscow station chief expelled during the Ames affair. “She worked her way up in Langley. I don’t think she’s ever been in the Near East. She’s never run an agent, she doesn’t know what the Khyber Pass looks like, but she’s supposed to be directing operations—telling the operators if some pitch [i.e., plan] is a good idea.”

The dissidents argue that “uniform career standards” did nothing to improve intelligence analysis but hurt field operations badly. Many DO veterans resigned and others lost heart when they saw what happened to Richard Holm, the Paris station chief who was yanked back after an attempt to recruit French officials went awry in 1995. US Ambassador Pamela Harriman fumed that whatever Holm was after, “it isn’t worth the embarrassment to me.” The word went forth from Langley—no more flaps, which meant don’t stick your neck out, which meant safe operations or none at all. When Deutch arrived, Holm left, a harsh back of the hand for one of the agency’s legendary operators. To fill the gap came a new emphasis on “reports”—the number of separate pieces of paper forwarded to Langley, whatever their quality. “What use is a Cray supercomputer at the Counter-Terrorism Center,” Baer asks, “if you’ve got nothing to put into it?”

With the end of the cold war the agency cut back on recruiting agents, closed down many stations including most of those in Africa, and even quit accepting defectors from the old KGB in 1992—several years before the CIA uncovered Aldrich Ames and another DO spy, Harold Nicholson, less celebrated but almost as damaging—he was known around the DO as “Ranger Jim.” At the same time the DO dismantled all the Counterespionage Groups, staffed mainly by “little old ladies” who knew the old cold war targets backward and forward but were no longer needed. Spies were a thing of the past; the new order of the day was to “manage intelligence relationships.” In Morocco, the station chief told Baer he was crazy for trying to mount ambitious operations. “We were told to stand down,” another dissident said. If you had checked the books you would have found just as many code names for secret agents, the dissidents say, but it was mainly window dressing—routine CIA informants puffed up in reports.

Along with the pullback in recruiting, the dissidents say, came a turn inward. Once operators had prided themselves on their grasp of local language and culture; now they stayed home watching American videos on TV. The CIA has long been wary of letting officers become too closely identified with any single country, language, or region; the British once called it “going native,” the CIA calls it “falling in love.” But the great operators in the past tended to speak languages like the natives, weren’t afraid of the water, had a feel for the way national politics and culture were interconnected. That, at any rate, was what the dissidents had hoped to be when they joined the agency. Howard Hart, a graduate of the University of Arizona, was sent by the agency in 1966 to India, where he learned Urdu and Hindustani; later he added “passable German.” Robert Baer learned French, German, Arabic, and even the Farsi dialect known as Dari when he was stationed in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. No Dari speakers served in Dushanbe after Baer left, and the agency has since closed the station down. “Do you know how many Pashto speakers the CIA has got?” he asks, citing the language of the principal ethnic group in Afghanistan, including most of the leadership of the Taliban. “The agency will tell you some imaginary number but I am telling you none. Do you know how many were sent to learn it after the embassy bombings? None.”

With the mass resignations from the DO in recent years the match between station chief and country got ever more arbitrary; one recent chief in Beijing, a dissident says, picked for the job by Deutch’s executive director, Nora Slatkin, spoke no Chinese and suffered from a conspicuous skin disease which the Chinese find particularly offensive. The loss of language speakers was not limited to the agency; the National Security Agency, a dissident claims, has only one Pashto speaker—a problem solved by sending transcripts of intercepted communications to Pakistan for translation by the ISI, an organization with a long history of involvement with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Some intelligence officials even believe that it was the ISI who warned bin Laden to get out of Khost before American cruise missiles struck in August 1998 in retaliation for the embassy bombings.

The dissidents say that the CIA is still staffed with hard-working people of talent and dedication and that it can still do competent work. They know how vast the agency’s resources are and are familiar with the technical marvels which collect intelligence. Above all, they recognize that the apparent success of the military effort in Afghanistan seems to have reassured the public that things are now going well. But all the same the dissidents insist that things have gone badly wrong at the agency. Years of public criticism, attempts to clean house, the writing and rewriting of rules, and efforts to rein in the Directorate of Operations have all conspired to make the agency insular, risk-averse, and gun-shy. So have catch-up hiring of women and minorities, public hostility that makes it hard to recruit at leading colleges, complacency following victory in the cold war, the humiliation of the Ames case, even the long economic boom which put CIA salaries farther and farther behind routine offers to recent graduates by business and industry. The dissidents don’t say that all of these problems are somehow the doing of George Tenet, but they do say they have undermined the CIA’s ability to follow terrorists through the streets of the Arab world. A few months ago theirs was only the opinion of a group of disaffected officials; since September 11 it ought to be considered seriously.


It is hard to find anyone in the intelligence community who dislikes George Tenet. He is an open-faced, hefty man, a reformed cigar smoker, friendly in manner, a slapper of backs and a clutcher of arms, earnest, interested, quick to take a point, and open to new ideas. “The outgoingness is a genuine gift,” said Helms, who has watched many directors of central intelligence come and go. “Who else could lecture Arafat on the Middle East—up close with his hand on Arafat’s lapel—and get away with it?” Tenet’s confirmation in July 1997 also brought a welcome end to the revolving door on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters, where Tenet replaced Deutch, who had replaced James Woolsey, who had replaced Robert Gates, with a number of failed nominations in between. Tenet has set a recent record for peaceful tenure of the DCI’s long, wood-paneled office overlooking the imposing main entrance to the building which Tenet renamed (before the last presidential election) the Bush Intelligence Center. The Bush in question is the President’s father, who was director for ten days short of a year in 1976– 1977 and is still remembered as the ideal intelligence consumer when he was in the White House.

The bureaucratic clout of DCIs can be measured by how often they meet with the president. With some it’s practically never; with most it starts often and fades off. In the case of Tenet and the current President Bush it is reported to be every day, with the arrival of the DCI at the White House carrying the President’s Daily Brief, a printed document reporting much as a newspaper might the classified intelligence take and hot issues of the moment. Trust and personal liking of this sort is rare and CIA officials, happy to have the attention of the Oval Office, don’t want to mess with it.

Tenet got the job by an unusual route through a succession of staff jobs dealing with intelligence issues for congressional committees. After several years as an aide to Senator John Heinz, Tenet joined the forty-member staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1985. Four years later he was appointed staff director and then in 1993 he moved to the White House, where he handled intelligence matters for the National Security Council and met John Deutch, who brought him out to Langley in 1995 as deputy director of central intelligence. Even Tenet’s admirers concede he got the top job mainly because Clinton did not want to risk another confirmation failure after Lake bowed out, and Tenet had already been confirmed once by the Senate. “George is a service kind of guy,” said an officer who worked with him at the agency. “He knew what congressmen wanted and needed and he dealt with the White House the same way.” What is remarkable about Tenet’s career is that he had no intelligence background or experience of the usual kind; his expertise was all learned in the corridors of power where the deciding question is what will fly. His largely trouble-free years at the CIA prove that he knows how to navigate the maze of a political town.

Three years ago Tenet invented a new position—“counselor” to the DCI—and hired the sixty-four-year-old lawyer and businessman A.B. Krongard to fill it. A Princeton graduate and martial arts enthusiast, Krongard had recently retired after selling his share in a Baltimore stock brokerage firm to Bankers Trust for $70 million. Last March Tenet moved Krongard up into the job of executive director, where he is in charge of managing the agency, including its secret operations, while the director deals with broader issues of policy and strategy. The dissidents say that Krongard may know how to run a financial firm and make a pot of money, and George Tenet may know how to keep out of bureaucratic fights he can’t win; but neither one of them, the dissidents say, really knows in any depth what effective intelligence requires, and on-the-job training isn’t enough. It is impossible for any outsider to fairly judge what the dissidents are saying—and certainly not anyone as far outside as a journalist like myself. That is a matter for some official body.

When things go awry in the intelligence business it is customary to do a damage report. The Ames damage report—a four-hundred-page document written by then CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz—in effect cost James Woolsey his job. In 1961, by the time the agency’s inspector general, Lyman Kirkpatrick, got around to writing his assessment of the embarrassing failure of a CIA-trained and -financed rebel army at the Bay of Pigs, the DCI at the time, Allen Dulles, was already gone. That disaster was big enough to get a second report from a blue-ribbon panel headed by General Maxwell Taylor. The problem wasn’t simply that the rebel army got shot to pieces as soon as it crossed the beach; it was that the agency had deceived itself about the real support throughout Cuba for Fidel Castro. The agency’s plan couldn’t work, and Taylor’s job was to make sure that never happened again.

When I began to work on this article, the first person I called was the CIA officer I have known longest, a man who started his career during World War II, joined the CIA at its birth, and worked closely with just about every chief of covert operations until he retired after the first round of CIA scandals and subsequent reengineerings in the early 1970s. This man remains extremely active in retirement. He is a member of numerous study groups, panels, and commissions, and he rarely misses a conference on intelligence. He hates to criticize the agency he served all his life, but the failure of September 11 is not something he is ready to pass over in silence. “I don’t think even Pearl Harbor matches this one,” he said. “How often do you lose half a division in a day? Nothing has ever happened on this scale before. This was totally beyond anybody’s beliefs or dreams. Nobody wanted to think the unthinkable.”

Was anybody talking about an investigation—a post-mortem to figure out what went wrong?

I don’t understand it,” said my friend. “There was a little talk but then it suddenly quieted down. Not even [Senator Richard] Shelby [former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee]—he knows he can’t raise his head. Nobody is pushing for an investigation.”

Is it possible to handle the problem—whatever the problem—without an investigation?


What would an investigation require?

You need presidential and congressional authority. You can’t just do it in-house.”

Could it be done while Tenet was still running the CIA?

If he’s still there everybody will know he’s watching. People won’t tell you the truth. Everybody will be covering his ass, protecting his boss. They try to get rid of rivals. They hide paper and destroy evidence. I’ve seen it. You can overcome it by being a sonofabitch but only if the top guy is gone.”

There is nothing this man hates more than the way politics has torn apart the CIA over the years. I would say he about half agrees with the dissidents—not 100 percent on half what they say, but 50 percent on all of it. But he has little sympathy for people who talk out of school, and he knows how hard it is for investigators to keep political meddlers at bay, get to the bottom of what went wrong, and fix what isn’t working. He was the first one to tell me, like someone describing a jewel, that Tenet had the President’s ear, which meant the agency could do its job. To give that away, take your chances with someone new, open up a whole can of worms by asking how this could have happened… Talking about it he sounds like a man facing open-heart surgery.


It ought to be done. He ought to go.”

—December 19, 2001

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