Missing the Point on Gen. Hayden

The final paragraph from Dana Priest’s fine analysis of the story behind Gen. Michael Hayden’s appointment to head the CIA in Tuesday’s Washington Post caught my attention:

The CIA, with the help of its foreign partners, has been responsible for capturing or killing nearly all the key al-Qaeda figures since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

One can dwell on intelligence failures in recent years, starting of course with the failure to predict the 9/11 attacks, and extending to the mistaken belief that Iraq possessed WMDs. But to the extent that so much of our intelligence work now falls under the Department of Defense, it is particularly short-sighted to single out the CIA for blame.

Meanwhile, we have to give the Agency its due: Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11, and the CIA has had Al Qaeda in its gunsights ever since. While we can all look forward to the day when Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and Mullah Mohammed Omar are out of circulation, the killing and capture of other senior Al Qaeda operatives (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described by the 9/11 Commission as the “mastermind” behind the 9/11 attrocities; and Ramzi Binalshibh, another key 9/11 figure) must be counted as an intelligence success. Score one for the spooks.

Meanwhile, the greatest intelligence blunder since 9/11 was the notion that post-Saddam Iraq would quickly settle into a stable and friendly unitary nation-state, ideally a democratic one. And on this point, the instincts among many at the CIA (as well as the State Department and the Army War College), were generally sound. Justin Logan and I took up this issue in a recent Cato Policy Analysis:

The common theme running through essentially all of the postwar planning was that the project in Iraq was going to be incredibly difficult and require a great deal of resources and sacrifice. Contrast that view with the view of the civilian leadership at the Pentagon at that time. The Pentagon believed that, by and large, resistance would be light and that a new liberal Iraqi leader could be implanted without a great deal of trouble. Accordingly, it appears that the Pentagon brushed aside pessimistic assessments from the Department of State and the War College as unduly negative.

Alas, being right doesn’t always count for very much in Washington. When CIA analysts warned that it would be difficult and costly to bring order to post-Saddam Iraq the assessments were immediately viewed with suspicion. As the Post’s David Ignatius reported last Sunday:

From late 2003 on, the agency was warning about the rise of the Iraqi insurgency and the failings of the administration’s political strategy. In 2004 the CIA station chief in Baghdad was sending warnings … about the deteriorating situation. This candid and largely correct reporting is said to have angered White House officials, who complained that the Baghdad chief was defeatist and not a team player. At the end of his tour, he was punished with a poor assignment.

No wonder the agency has experienced a shocking loss of senior talent in recent years. The announcement that Porter Goss would be replaced by a decidedly non-partisan person, and that Gen. Hayden would be accompanied by a well-respected careerist Stephen R. Kappes, a former head of CIA’s operations branch who resigned in a dispute with Goss, was aimed first and foremost at staunching the losses – and perhaps even reversing them.

We need an intelligence service in this country that is insulated from political pressures to the greatest extent possible. It cannot be hermetically sealed, of course, and there is a natural tendency for an analyst or briefer to want to play to his or her audience. Which is all the more reason why political leaders, beginning with the president and his senior cabinet officers, must do their utmost to seek out dissenting opinions, and to carefully consider whether the various sources of information are objective and knowledgeable in the matter at hand. President Bush hasn’t always done that, and the results have been disastrous.

I don’t mean this as an endorsement of Gen. Hayden. My colleague Gene Healy raises the issue of Hayden’s oversight of the NSA surveillance program, an issue that must be addressed during Hayden’s confirmation hearings. The answers he provides may ultimately warrant a “no” vote from senators.

It is also clear, however, that the CIA suffered greatly during Porter Goss’s brief but troubled tenure. Here’s hoping that a successor, whomever that might be, can turn things around.