It’s hard to know who to root for in the continuing scuffles between the Republican Congress, the White House and the CIA over the intelligence agency. The latest round–actually, it’s a postdated tussle–was triggered by a May 18, 2006 letter that Representative Peter Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, sent to George W. Bush raising protests on three fronts: recent appointments at the CIA, the new Director of National Intelligence office, and the White House’s failure to brief Congress about certain covert programs, which Hoekstra didn’t name in his letter. (The letter was first disclosed by The New York Times on July 9.)
It was easy for some to see Hoekstra as a heroic reformer challenging secret government. Truthdig.org named Hoekstra the “Truthdigger of the Week.” But the spy wars of Washington are not linear affairs and the battle lines murky. Is the CIA a rotting institution that failed prior to 9/11 and then provided Bush flawed intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq? Or is it a bastion of risk-averse conventionalists who have undermined Bush’s ambitious, forward-looking national security agenda (which includes the Iraq war)? The CIA has been getting it from the left and the right in recent years. And it’s unclear whether the top tier of the agency ought to be backed or booted.
When Porter Goss, a Republican who preceded Hoekstra as chairman of the House intelligence committee, was CIA director, he placed his political aides in charge of the agency, and the career officers rebelled. Several of the most experienced CIA veterans–including Stephen Kappes, the director of operations, resigned rather than deal with the Goss crew. The CIA people viewed the Goss gang as hacks motivated by political concerns; Goss and his allies saw the CIA career leadership as bureaucrats resistant to change. (Goss resigned as CIA chief in May; he was replaced by General Michael Hayden, who, as the National Security Agency chief, was a longtime intelligence professional.)
Enter Hoekstra and his letter. What received the most attention was his charge that his committee had not been briefed about “some alleged Intelligence Community activities.” He added, “If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the Administration, a violation of law, and, just as importantly, a direct affront to me and the Members o this committee.” Hoekstra did not say what secrets the White House had been keeping from him. Open-government fans cheered Hoekstra’s pointed reminder to Bush: the law says you cannot run covert programs on your own without telling Congress. And on Fox News Sunday, the day his letter was disclosed, Hoekstra said his letter had done the trick and that subsequently he was briefed about this intelligence activity–which he still would not identify. (Hoekstra is not much of a maverick; he has not rushed to hold public hearings on such matters as the controversial and arguably illegal NSA domestic wiretapping program.)