The professionals at the CIA and the State Department are dedicated, hard-working, committed, patriotic, brave, clean and reverent. Now that I've said that plainly, can we talk candidly about all that is glaringly dysfunctional at these agencies?
Start with the CIA which in the 1970s and ‘80s didn't foresee the Khomeini revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the collapse of the Soviet Union. The CIA didn't know that Saddam Hussein was close to developing nuclear weapons – a fact discovered only as an unintended consequence of the first Gulf War. The agency underestimated the threat posed by a growing radical Islamist movement in the 1990s. Its Directorate of Intelligence didn't grasp how menacing al Qaeda was becoming, and its Directorate of Operations did nothing about the Afghan training camps that were graduating thousands of terrorists.
Astonishingly, its analysts never imagined terrorists using hijacked passenger planes as guided missiles. If they had, surely they would at least have recommended reinforcing cockpit doors, arming pilots, more effective passenger screening – something.
The CIA failed to track Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction – weapons he once had but, apparently, destroyed secretly at some point before the American-led invasion in 2003.
That's only a fraction of what the CIA didn't accomplish. Yet the organization had plenty of time this year to leak information intended to damage President Bush's re-election chances.
In addition, the CIA permitted one of its most senior analysts to write, publish and promote a book called “Imperial Hubris” – an undisguised attack on the policies of the Bush White House. Whether you agree or disagree with Anonymous is beside the point (I disagree, but that's for another day). The CIA is supposed to provide intelligence to policy makers. The CIA is not supposed to make policy for policy makers, nor tell the President how they think he should do his job.
Shockingly, the CIA leadership not only permitted this – they let taxpayers finance it. Anonymous didn't even take a leave of absence from his day job.
And what can one say about the use of the pen name “Anonymous”? Only that it was intended to mislead the public into thinking the writer was some kind of undercover operative when, in fact, it's no secret that Anonymous is Michael Scheuer, a desk-bound analyst at Langley, who had long been making these arguments around town (including, at one dinner, to me and a few others select guests).
So now, President Bush has given the CIA new leadership. Porter Goss, a former CIA operative himself, resigned from the House where he had chaired the intelligence oversight committee to take on the enormous challenge of whipping the CIA back into shape.
Such transformations are never easy. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that two senior CIA officials quit because of confrontations with Goss's new chief of staff, Patrick Murray, “who many accuse of having a brusque manner.”
What kind of spy quits because his boss is “brusque”? And what does this suggest about the CIA's descent from the world's toughest espionage agency to another sclerotic Washington bureaucracy?
Meanwhile, over at Foggy Bottom, Condoleeza Rice also has her work cut out for her.
The career employees at the State Department and in the Foreign Service are mostly liberal Democrats who have been as susceptible as other readers of the New York Review of Books to the widening of the ideological and partisan divides.
Early in the Bush administration, a retired Foreign Service officer who continued to maintain close ties with the department told me that many employees at State were simply refusing to put energy into furthering Bush policies of which they disapproved. She asked one why he didn't resign as a matter of principle. “Easy for you to say,” came the reply. “You don't have kids to put through college.”
Others referred to Bush and his foreign policy team as “the Christmas help,” meaning they were confident this President would soon be gone and then they'd be able to get back to business as usual.
The few Bush loyalists – and those who don't believe they're entitled to veto the decisions of a sitting President -- were referred to as “the American interests section.”
Can such a state of affairs continue? Unfortunately, it can. But it shouldn't, certainly not now, in this critical era.
Intelligence and foreign policy professionals need to stop being defensive about past mistakes. What's done is done and there's plenty of blame to go around -- to past administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, to Congress, and to the media.
Now is the time for these public servants to return to doing the jobs the public pays them to do. The intelligence agencies must find better ways to ferret out useful information and supply it to the White House – whose occupant has been re-elected by a majority of Americans. Diplomats need to implement and defend the policies of the President they serve – whether or not they voted for that President.
Sure, these professionals should be encouraged to advise, question and offer alternative approaches. But when the President says, “Here's what I've decided,” the only responses are “Yes sir,” or “I quit.”
It is the task of Porter Goss and Condi Rice to communicate this dramatically changed reality to the people who work for them. Doing so, won't make them popular. But they owe it to this President – and to future presidents as well.