Perhaps it’s best these days to think of the CIA as a kind of reality-TV show, just not as tasteful. Call it Agency Amok, in which the top secret organization bares all, no dirty little secret too crass or too petty to be put on public display. And not even The Donald could out-trump Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss, whose “You’re fired!” now resonates down the halls of Langley with all the chill dispatch of a season cliff-hanger. One can almost hear the knees knocking from the dispirited career case officers waiting to learn if they too are off the show. Reviewers might say “a brilliant mix” of Fear Factor — candidates are immersed in a pit of partisan vipers — and The Apprentice, except that in this topsy-turvy hit, Goss, the former Republican congressman from Florida, is himself the apprentice, and those most seasoned in the field must either suck up or ship out.
Those fearing that Goss would pack the place with those of his own political persuasion did not have long to wait. His first pick was one of his own senior aides, Michael J. Kostiw, as CIA executive director — the third most senior position. But the appointment was scrubbed when a 20-year-old allegation of shoplifting surfaced — the prize: a $2.13 package of bacon. (Kostiw settled for special assistant to Goss.) His replacement cannot yet even be named because of security concerns and so is referred to only as “Dusty,” no reference to his status as second choice.
Infighting is rampant, suspicions (once focused on Al Qaeda) are now reserved for those running the Agency. The CIA’s late and legendary James Angleton, who elevated paranoia to a career pursuing the shadows of Soviet moles, would have had a field day, only now one must be true-blue to the Red States. Fears of even further politicization, of high-handed Republican apparatchiks calling the shots, have sent quivers through the Agency. Some see it as payback for the discord and criticism that leaked from Langley before the election — some Bush supporters saw it as a kind of palace coup. (Many at Langley find that idea mildly amusing, given that the Agency is hardly a hotbed of either liberals or political activists.) But there was nothing amusing about someone at the White House outing Valerie Plame, a covert Agency operative whose ambassador husband, Joseph Wilson, dared question claims of an Iraqi nuclear program.
Today, rumors of a further Goss hit list — one sets the number at 41, another at 80 — consume the affairs of the clandestine service otherwise distracted by the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other nuisances. Those operatives longest in the tooth say not even the notorious 1973 housecleaning undertaken by then director James R. Schlesinger and dubbed “the massacre” so destabilized the Agency. And while military intelligence (no jokes about oxymorons, please) celebrates its victory in Falluja, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his violent crew of decapitators give our troops the slip, leaving Langley once more in the dark as to his whereabouts.
Daily, the Agency descends from the ranks of the merely demoralized to the clinically depressed, falling from vaunted to daunted. The time-honored line between collection and analysis has been blurred, as has that between early retirement and walking the plank. Deputy Director John McLaughlin, a 32-year veteran of the CIA and a sober, levelheaded civil servant, has chosen to leave. So too has the Agency’s much respected head of the clandestine service, Stephen Kappes, and his deputy Michael Sulick. All of them were of a generation old enough to remember when political partisanship and malleability put one in the suspect category — not in line for a promotion.
A Goss memo that found its way into the press extols loyalty to The President and none too subtly cautions against those who might raise obstacles in His path. “As Agency employees,” he wrote, “we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies.” At Langley, it would seem that the first lesson of pre-war intelligence in Iraq is not that reports of weapons of mass destruction were groundless, but rather that those who might have learned a thing or two from that debacle may themselves be seen as insurgents. Goss pays lip service to independence — the sine qua non of intelligence gathering — even as he carries out the mandate of an administration that confuses harmony with loyalty, submission with service.
And of course there is some irony in having Goss, a former covert officer and later chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, be the one who is the self-appointed reformer, the one to clean the CIA’s house. In the wake of 9-11, with all its attendant finger-pointing, a suddenly invigorated Goss could speak of the Agency’s clandestine service as being risk-averse, of the need to change the CIA’s culture and direction. But before 9-11, he rarely criticized his alma mater. Indeed, if his predecessor, George Tenet, could have been criticized for being too much of a team player for going along with the Bush juggernaut regarding Iraq, Goss was an outright cheerleader. His reluctance to hold the Agency accountable, to ask the tough questions and demand answers, was seen by many as his angling for the position of director — which is now his. So it may be said that he is cleaning a house that he himself allowed to fall into disrepair and disrepute.
The CIA is still smarting from the findings of the 9-11 Commission. And even now the Senate and House debate whether the new National Director of Intelligence — a czar to oversee the 15 entities within the “IC,” or intelligence community — will have budget authority over the lot or whether, as is now the case, the purse strings will remain largely at the Pentagon, in the hands of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Absent budget authority, the intelligence czar will be no czar at all.
Turmoil. Dissension. Suspicion. Backbiting. All the elements of a good show. And if that is not blood sport enough, we have this: Goss’s predecessor, the affable Tenet, was a man so consumed by secrecy that an Agency retiree could be denied the right to write a letter to the editor on a matter of conscience. Now Tenet offers new meaning to the word chutzpah as he contemplates a major book deal and gallivants across the country flap-jawing for obscene sums (already totaling a reported $500,000 after just a few months), insisting that his audiences keep their own lips sealed. (This, you may remember, is the same George Tenet who after convincing Secretary of State Colin Powell of the grave dangers posed by Saddam — he once called the case for Iraqi WMDs a “slam-dunk” — later told an audience at Georgetown that he never said the danger was “imminent.”)
No wonder Washington hangs on every episode. Not since the camera entered the bedroom of Anna Nicole Smith has a nation been treated to so much more than it had any desire to see, and yet it cannot look away.
Of course all of this would be a riotous laugh, were it not for the indisputable fact that the security of the nation hangs upon the outcome. Sadly, this is a cliff-hanger to which all of us will be privy, whether or not we follow the day-to-day self-mutilations at Langley.