WASHINGTON — When Bill Casey, my old friend and once my lawyer, was CIA director during the Reagan Administration, he often confided that his was “the best job in Washington.” He thought he headed the finest government agency in town. Alas, over the next decade it lost a lot of steam, as the Senate report on its ineptitude made clear last week. It is overly bureaucratized, hide-bound, and lacking in the capacity for human intelligence. Some of this started in the 1970s when liberals such as Stansfield Turner thought they could turn intelligence-gathering into a high tech operation run by geeks and lawyers. When the Clinton wiz kids arrived in the White House, the lawyers gained primacy even over the geeks. Now partisan Washington is in full howl over the inaccuracy of intelligence vouchsafed us in the run-up to the Iraqi invasion.
Some of official Washington’s indignation is unconvincing. Critics such as Senator Jean Pierre Kerry talk as though intelligence — properly assembled! — is infallible. It never is. It is always fraught with error. Even during World War II, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a matutinal serving of the Luftwaffe’s mail thanks to his intelligence wizards’ cracking of the “Enigma” code, the intelligence stream fed to him was confusing and often inaccurate. Soon a small bureaucracy was filtering it to him, and that, of course, did not eliminate all errors.
Yet the British have a longstanding experience with intelligence gathering going back centuries. Washington’s experience is by comparison meager and our commitment to it is ambivalent. “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail,” is an appraisal of intelligence supposedly made by President’s Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War when asked to spy on Stalin’s communications. Official Washington’s recent bickering about the CIA shows that a consensus on intelligence has yet to form here. The Brits have a sounder grasp on intelligence’s importance to national security and of its limits.
When a British scholar took me on a walk in London not long ago to show me the offices from which the decryptions of “Enigma” were brought to Churchill he took me to a quiet side street near Number 10 Downing Street, rarely noticed by tourists or pedestrians. He pointed out two nondescript old buildings. One was in use by British naval intelligence as long ago as 1895. The other provided Churchill with his insights into the Luftwaffe. A careful inspection of the white sheer curtains in the buildings’ front windows indicated they were not exactly sheer. They were bombproof. There remain spooks behind those old walls.
The work of the CIA was crucial in winning the Cold War. In fighting terror its intelligence work is even more important. Our preponderance in arms mattered in conventional war. It matters less in defeating terrorists. What is crucial now is to penetrate their cells from whence they wish to send suicidal maniacs armed with lethal concoctions.
In a week we shall have the 9/11 Commission’s proposals on improving our sclerotic CIA. By that time the President had best have a replacement ready to fill the presently empty director’s chair at Langley. Ultimately the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations will probably make that position of secondary importance in the new intelligence scheme of things, but for now that post must be filled. The war against terror cannot await the implementation of reform. The presidential campaign will transform that empty chair into a campaign issue.
Liberals and Democrats are already making the appointment of a new CIA director a political issue. The leading candidate, former CIA case officer and chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence Congressman Porter Goss, has already been vetoed by Senate and House Democrats who claim he is “too partisan.” Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Senator Pat Roberts apparently has acquiesced. So who will the President nominate to head off partisan bickering and indecision at CIA in time of war? Conservatives are talking up two candidates with superb credentials, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and Congressman Chris Cox.
Lehman during the Reagan Administration shook up the Department of the Navy, made good on the Administration’s goal to create a 600 ship navy, and consequently played a huge role in bankrupting the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War. From his position on the 9/11 Commission Lehman has demonstrated an enormous knowledge of intelligence and of the CIA’s failures. He is among the best and brightest of his generation. Then there is Congressman Cox. In chairing the investigation of the Chinese fund-raising scandal of 1996 he established a record of fairness and a reputation for understanding espionage.
Either of these men would do a fine job at CIA and in any leadership position that the 9/11 Commission might establish. One hopes that the President will act soon. He has both terrorists and opportunistic political opponents breathing down on him.