Monday, December 20, 2004

Breaking China at the CIA

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2004

The spate of resignations and retirements at CIA Headquarters should be recognized for what it is: a long needed leadership shake up of senior management. DCI Goss is putting his imprint on the Agency, signally a new way of doing business. Those who do not like Goss' style and direction are being invited to vote with their feet.

Goss is doing what George Tenet could not and would not do, shedding the organization of the "old think" that led the Agency into playing it safe in the 1990s. After the Iran-Contra and Ames spying scandals, the Agency lost so much political standing that it began to implode organizationally and philosophically. Afraid to take risks that might offend Washington politicos and European allies after overstepping its legal bounds in the Iran-Contra era, gutted of the clandestine operators who knew how to run secret wars, exhausted from reform whiplash, and demoralized by criticism and poor performance, the CIA simply became unable and unwilling to get down and dirty to do the hard part to fight a real war on terrorism.

The CIA senior leaders today are those who came of age as managers during the 1990s and many unfortunately bring with them the mind-set of caution and political correctness. The culture of the Agency, particularly that of the Directorate of Operations, places a premium on organizational loyalty. The "old boy" network sticks together and resists changes that might alter its collective power and influence. The upheaval at Langley is a direct result of DCI Goss challenging the status quo, breaking some china and hitting the cultural brick wall.

Pushing out the most experienced officers, however, is a double-edged sword. Because of the hiring freeze of the 1990s, there are relatively few officers with more than five years of field experience that can manage operations. We risk decapitating ourselves in the process of re-orienting how we do business. Both Goss and CIA managers should pay heed.

What should not get lost in the debate is that the CIA plays a critical role in protecting our nation. The calls for dismantling the CIA are irresponsible because this approach dismisses the significant contributions of the CIA, particularly while we are a nation at war. The bureaucratic and political infighting over an intelligence reform bill as some try to preserve the status quo is no better. We need to come to grips with the facts, and fix what is broken. We do not want to repeat September 11, or the Iraqi WMD mis-assessment, for that matter. The nation deserves better. It is Goss' job to forge a path to improve CIA performance. CIA officers know this and want this. The fireworks at Langley will subside as the CIA focuses on the mission at hand, rebuilding and refocusing to be the most effective organization it can and should be.

Melissa Boyle Mahle is a former CIA operations officer and the author of Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11 (Nation Books 2005).

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