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U.S.: Necessary Housecleaning Or Political Bloodletting At CIA?

Several senior officials of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have resigned since President George W. Bush's new intelligence director, Porter Goss, took over in September. Most recently, the man in charge of covert operations and his deputy quit on 15 November. Last week, the agency's former number-two man left. The resignations follow a year of revelations that the CIA did a poor job anticipating the attacks of 11 September 2001 and assessing the weapons capabilities of Iraq's Saddam Hussein before he was deposed in a U.S.-led invasion in early 2003. Is the nation's leading spy agency undergoing a necessary housecleaning, or political bloodletting? RFE/RL put these questions to two former intelligence officials and filed this report from Washington.

Washington, 17 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Two months ago, during his confirmation hearing as director of the CIA on 14 September, Goss promised evenhanded leadership.

"If confirmed, I pledge to be forthright and objective in the presentation of the intelligence information to you and to the policymakers of the executive branch [presidential administration]," Goss said.

Objectivity was an issue during the hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, because Goss, at that time, was in the U.S. House of Representatives and an outspoken member of Bush's Republican Party.

But the vice chairman of that committee, Democrat Jay Rockefeller (West Virginia), said he thought Goss had been especially partisan, particularly in criticizing the judgment of Senator John Kerry (Massachusetts), then the Democratic presidential nominee.

"On 8 March of this year, you co-authored an intelligence op-ed [newspaper] piece called 'Need Intelligence? Don't Ask John Kerry.' In it, you made a number of highly charged, partisan -- in my judgment -- allegations," Rockefeller said.

Now, under Goss, the CIA is losing veteran staff members.

Good riddance, said retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard, who served as an intelligence officer in Europe during the Cold War. He told RFE/RL that the CIA's failures in recent years demonstrates that its top officials are incompetent.

Not only did they fail on Al-Qaeda and Iraq, Allard charged, but they supplied extremely bad information to Secretary of State Colin Powell for his prewar presentation to the United Nations Security Council about Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction -- a presentation that badly embarrassed America's leading diplomat.

What is even worse, Allard said, is that in the months before the U.S. presidential election, CIA officials under Goss's predecessor, George Tenet, leaked information meant to embarrass the Bush administration. He said they evidently wanted Bush voted out of office because they feared he would clean up the agency.

"The CIA was in virtual rebellion against the Bush administration for most of this past year," Allard said. "Tenet was their agreed-upon front man, and when he left, it sent a very strong signal that: 'Look, the game here is up.' I'm not surprised to see some of these rats deserting a rapidly sinking ship."

Allard said the CIA has become more of an aristocracy, dedicated to self-preservation, when it should be a meritocracy dedicated to protecting the country.

When the agency's predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, was created, Allard recalled, many said its initials -- OSS -- stood for "oh, so social," because of the many recruits it got from American universities like Princeton and Yale, which were attended by many of the country's social elite.

Allard said the CIA's approach remains the same, while the threat has shifted from the Soviet Union to the Islamic world.

"That [recruiting Eurocentric spies] was appropriate for its time. But that's been allowed to be perpetuated," Allard said. "Really good grades at Princeton and all the rest of it doesn't tell us very much about what the hell is going on in Waziristan."

Retired U.S. Army General Edward Atkeson, who also was a Cold War intelligence officer, said he agrees that change is needed at the CIA, but only to correct the agency's recent blunders, not for political reasons.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Atkeson noted that most government departments reflect the ideology of an administration. But he said the CIA should be "a professional service, like the military," where results are more important than politics.

"When it begins to look as though some other factors were driving it [the change at the CIA], such as the political orientation of the administration, then I get very upset. And I'm a little upset right now," Atkeson said.

Atkeson said the CIA's "political orientation" is proven by recent remarks by Bush. The president, shortly after winning reelection, said his victory gave him the power needed to continue running the country, and the CIA, as he sees fit.

"I think that we've had clear evidence that the CIA has been abused as a mechanism for justifying us going to war," Atkeson said.

In this atmosphere, Atkeson said, he expects to see more senior CIA officials quit.