The resignation of CIA Director George Tenet is unfortunate, but also long overdue.
Overdue, because Tenet led the U.S. intelligence community into its worst failure of risk-assessment since Pearl Harbor. That our policymakers should share blame with him is moot: As President Kennedy told then-CIA Director Allen Dulles, after the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, “In a parliamentary government, I would resign. In this government the president can’t, and so you must go.”
The failures of the intelligence community on Tenet’s watch have not been limited to the months before 9/11. Osama bin Laden has eluded capture. Iran kept a nuclear program hidden for seven years. The unrest in Iraq was not foreseen, and has not been quelled. And, of course, the White House went to war in Iraq on the basis of intelligence that not only proved faulty, but that originated with persons now alleged to be Iranian-intelligence collaborators.
Yet Tenet’s departure is unlikely to improve our spying overnight. In the short term, his absence may well even damage our intelligence. That’s because Tenet had two tools in his box that every CIA director needs, yet few have ever possessed.
The first is a close, personable, working relationship with the chief policymaker: the president. The second is a chummy connection to the chief policymaking institution: Congress.
Most intelligence failures occur not within the CIA, but when the links between the agency and policymakers break down. The typical postmortem is not that we didn’t have the intelligence, but that it wasn’t believed and acted on in time.
The job of CIA director thus requires a certain amount of marketing. Of jumping up and down, of lighting one’s hair on fire–getting the right brains in the room, and getting them to make some choices costing plenty of money.
Tenet had this gift. But unfortunately, when he got the brains in the room, and the choices were made, and the money was spent, the data informing the choices too often turned out to be not quite true.
Even if Tenet’s successor can cultivate Congress, and win over the White House, he will still have to ferret out the facts. That’s not an easy job. It’s made harder by the bad operational philosophies that have taken root since 1973.
Specifically, we haven’t had effective counterintelligence since then. Our operations aren’t secure. The people we’re targeting take countermeasures. Allied spy services won’t share with us.
Worse yet, we don’t vet properly the intel we do get. Since 1973, CIA case officers have been allowed to be their own counterspy officers–effectively, to check their own work. The upside of this is that current, live intelligence doesn’t get bogged down in layers of bureaucratic vetting and second-guessing. The downside is that data on such matters as Iraqi WMD, presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations, haven’t been vetted at all.
Finally, and perhaps most fatally, we’re convinced no one can deceive our technology–our spy satellites and our code-breakers. That’s been the CIA’s official position since it sponsored an official conference on strategic deception at the Monterrey Defense Languages School in 1985.
Those who suspect deception have been continually labeled “paranoid.” Yet it’s now clear that we were deceived–not only by Iraqi exiles clamoring to remove Saddam, but by the Soviets and by Russia from 1985 to 2001, when moles Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen were used in a massive game of disinformation against us.
President Bush would do well to replace Tenet with someone who knows, and who has said publicly, that our whole philosophy of intelligence is naive. That leaves a fairly small field, dominated by perhaps three men: Former Reagan National Security Council staffer and G.W. Bush Defense Department offiicial Keneth deGraffenreid; former Senate Intelligence staffer Angelo Codevilla; and former Undersecretary of Defense and Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney.
I wish Tenet’s successor all the best–with the Congress, with the president, and with foreign-intelligence sources. But unless he can change the misguided mindset, he won’t be able to save us from the next disaster.
–Mark Riebling is the author of Wedge: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11: How the Secret War Between the CIA and FBI Has Endangered National Security.