In judging George W. Bush’s choice to fill the vacancy created at the CIA by the sudden (and unexplained) resignation of its director, Porter Goss, let’s start with a basic assumption: In the post-9/11 world, the United States does need solid and smart intelligence. The CIA has a long history of terrible abuses, embarrassing excesses and inexcusable screw-ups–including failure to detect the 9/11 plot, despite having a bead on at least two of the hijackers, and failure to assess Iraq’s WMD capabilities accurately. But it would be a mistake to dwell only on the CIA’s record and forget to insist that taxpayers–for the $40 billion or so spent each year on the intelligence agencies–should receive something of value for their money: a CIA that can deliver reliable intelligence without creating more problems than it solves. That description does not fit the agency of late. Under George Tenet it blew the most important intelligence question after September 11–Iraq’s WMDs–and it has been collapsing internally in recent years, with experienced officers and new recruits leaving in droves in response to Goss’s partisan broom. Some analysts feel it has become tougher for them to do an honest job.
The CIA needs reinvention and a director who can oversee the transformation. But Bush’s choice for director, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, the former National Security Agency chief, is not the right man for the job of the nation’s spymaster. Although he has experience managing a large intelligence bureaucracy, the two main criticisms that emerged immediately after his nomination are on target: While at the NSA, he masterminded Bush’s warrantless wiretap program. A year after the program had begun, Hayden misled Congress by testifying that any domestic surveillance was being carried out under the provisions of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires probable cause and approval by a special court), even though the Administration had been evading FISA for a year. After this illegal spying was exposed last year, Hayden was one of its most ardent champions, complaining that FISA presented burdensome bureaucratic obstacles. His remarks showed a disregard for due process–after all, after 9/11 Congress did pass a provision that allowed investigators to obtain wiretaps in emergencies as long as they filed the necessary request within seventy-two hours after the tap. That wasn’t good enough for Hayden.
The other objection was Hayden’s wardrobe: He wears a uniform. For years there has been a fierce battle within the national security establishment, as CIA directors have feuded with defense secretaries–especially Donald Rumsfeld–over control of intelligence resources. This is not just about money. The military has an understandable penchant for the kind of intelligence that’s handy in wartime. Civilian intelligence officials have broader horizons, including analysis of long-term geopolitical and social trends. Placing an active-duty officer–who technically answers to Rumsfeld–in charge of a civilian agency is a lousy idea. Citing Hayden’s military status, Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, protested, “He’s the wrong person, the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
There’s another reason to oppose Hayden. The nation requires a CIA chief who can be an independent force and an honest broker of intelligence–someone (unlike Tenet or Goss) who will signal from the start that he or she will quit if the policy-makers (including the Commander in Chief) abuse or misrepresent information supplied by intelligence professionals. It’s sad but true: With the Bush Administration, the CIA chief has to check the President. There’s no indication that Hayden can, or will, be such a director. And there’s no chance Bush would appoint such a spy chief.