News - CIA at a crossroads

A former analyst recalls prior morale problems at the agency

One day in the mid-1970s, when I was a young analyst at the CIA, I was briefing the agency's deputy director in his private office. There came a sharp "rat-a-tat-tat" on the door.

Before the deputy director could get up to answer, the door burst open and then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush stuck his head in. "Anyone have anything they want me to talk to 'the Rock' about, since I'm headed to the White House?"

"The Rock" was then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. I sat there stunned. Not only had the director of the CIA placed himself in my presence, but he irreverently had referred to the vice president of the United States as "The Rock." I decided then and there that I liked this man.

Although George Bush served only a short time as head of the CIA, he quickly developed a strong bond with the agency's personnel; a bond that lasted throughout his short tenure and continued into his subsequent presidential campaigns. The esprit de corps at the CIA, which had sunk to historic lows in the last years of the Nixon administration, what with Watergate and all, was quickly and visibly rebuilt under Bush's leadership. No wonder the agency's headquarters now bear his name.

All that changed in 1977, when newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter named Adm. Stansfield Turner as DCI (the official title of the director of the CIA is "Director of Central Intelligence" — "DCI" for Washington insiders enamored of acronyms).

Turner, accustomed to giving orders on a ship or in a military headquarters, and having them carried out immediately and without question, began his tenure like a bull in a china closet. Both he and the president who appointed him fancied themselves at the forefront of the cutting edge of foreign intelligence operations — technology. Spy satellites, electronic gimmickry and crack analysts at the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters — not the archaic undercover spies, known in agency parlance as "case officers" — were to them, the future of the CIA.

The new DCI quickly solidified his reputation as a techno-geek with little patience when hundreds of senior agency officials were "pink-slipped" into retirement, early or otherwise. Virtually an entire generation of Cold War warriors, who had cut their teeth fighting the evils of Nazism and communism in Europe and around the world, were unceremoniously given the high hat.

Unable to withstand the body blows dealt it by the Carter administration's thinly disguised disdain for covert intelligence work in the first place, and the wholesale exit of many of its most seasoned veterans, morale at the CIA plummeted, as did the agency's fabled ability to conduct clandestine operations. This precipitous drop in standing was made markedly worse in the last year of the Carter administration, when it facilitated the downfall of the shah of Iran and with it the loss of some of our best capabilities to gather sound intelligence on both the Soviet Union and emerging rogue Arab nations. The yearlong saga of our captured embassy personnel, including intelligence employees, capped one of the worst periods for the CIA in the post-WWII era.

The 12 years represented by the Reagan and Bush administrations saw a substantial rebuilding of the CIA's morale and capabilities, although the loss in 1989 of the overarching "target" of our entire foreign intelligence network — the Soviet Union — left the agency without a clear mandate or vision.

The Clinton administration, preoccupied as it was with matters other than foreign intelligence, paid little attention to rebuilding at Langley. Strangely, even after 9/11, George W. Bush's administration kept the same vision-deficient leadership in place at the agency.

Thus do we find ourselves in the final quarter of 2004 with an agency ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the "Age of Terrorism"; an organization so poorly run that its incoming director — former U.S. Rep. Porter Goss of Florida, himself a former agency spook — has called the agency for which he is now taking the reins "dysfunctional." Hardly the way to rebuild sorely needed morale and inspire loyalty.

The CIA has faced and survived similar challenges. But the problems Goss now faces — exacerbated perhaps by personality conflicts between him and the staff he brought from the House of Representatives, and careerists at the agency — threaten the very core of the agency's mission, which is to provide the president and his top national security policymakers with the best and most current objective foreign intelligence in the world.

If, in fact, the charges swirling around Langley are true — criminal leaks of sensitive intelligence for partisan political reasons, the intelligence community's failure to address the weaknesses that led to 9/11, the Iraqi intelligence mess — then the problems confronting Goss are monumental.

While the tools Goss brings to the fight are impressive, entering the ring with a sledgehammer and calling the very agency you are trying to revamp "dysfunctional," which is a direct slap at every person working there, is probably not the best way to start.

A Republican, Bob Barr represented parts of Cobb County and northwest Georgia in Congress from 1995 through 2003. From 1971 until 1978, he was a CIA employee.

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