Exactly as intended, Porter Goss has hit the Central Intelligence Agency like a wrecking ball.
The former Florida congressman, who had an undistinguished career as a CIA operations officer in the 1960s, came to the agency in September 2004 after serving seven years as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. With his staff in tow -- a collection of Capitol Hill aides nicknamed “the Gosslings” -- Goss bowled into the CIA's Langley, Virginia, headquarters, scattering senior officials like so many duckpins. In mid-September, Robert Richer, the newly installed deputy director of operations and a former Near East Division chief, quit in disgust. The newspapers duly reported Richer's departure. But he is only the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg.
Since Goss took over, between 30 and 90 senior CIA officials have made their exit, according to various sources, some fleeing into retirement, others taking refuge as consultants. Others, unable to retire, have stayed, but only to mark time at the agency. Morale, already low after several years during which the CIA was accused of a series of intelligence failures related to September 11 and Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, is now at rock-bottom. The agency's vaunted Near East Division, in particular, which served as the “pointy end of the spear,” as one CIA veteran put it, in simultaneous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “global war on terror,” has been decimated.
And the agency has been locked down tight: After a decade during which the CIA prided itself on a new openness, shedding some of its legendary obsession with secrecy, neither Goss nor anyone else in the organization is giving interviews or bothering to explain the CIA's workings.
Appointed to lead the agency in the midst of a heated presidential campaign, Goss' primary mission, according to numerous former CIA officials -- including some only recently departed -- was to yank Langley onto President Bush's political team. His immediate goal in 2004 was to block what had been, until then, a stream of damaging leaks of information about CIA intelligence reports that ran contrary to the White House's rosy optimism about Iraq and U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. More broadly, the Goss team clamped down on dissenting views and radically politicized the CIA's leadership. Even worse, say former agency officials, Goss has acquiesced in the dismantling of the CIA itself, which has bowed too easily to the supremacy of the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who spent his days in Baghdad contradicting the CIA's clear-eyed battle reports.
For liberals and leftists accustomed to viewing the CIA as a rogue agency prone to unaccountable covert actions abroad, it is ironic that since 9-11, the CIA has emerged as a bastion of opposition to George W. Bush's imperial foreign policy. Further, since 9-11, the CIA has established itself as perhaps the primary U.S. system of defense against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda and its offshoots and co-thinkers in the Muslim world. That reality makes Goss' wrecking-ball approach to the agency both irresponsible and dangerous.
This article, based on more than two-dozen interviews with former intelligence officials from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department, along with ex–Capitol Hill intelligence staffers who worked with Goss, is the first comprehensive account of the CIA's transition from George Tenet through John McLaughlin, the agency's respected acting director in mid-2004, to Goss. It reveals that Goss may have put the final nail in the coffin of an agency whose expertise and analytical skills were cavalierly overridden by a White House obsessed with Saddam Hussein. From 2001 on, its covert operatives and analysts were ignored, pressured, and forced to toe the administration's line; neoconservative ideologues considered those operatives to be virtually part of the enemy camp. Many of those who remain inside the CIA are distraught, convinced that their work is wasted on an administration that doesn't want to hear the truth. “How do you think they feel?” asked one recently retired CIA officer with three decades of experience. “They're watching a fucking idiotic policy, run by idiots, unfold right before their eyes!”
From 9-11 through the start of the Iraq War in March 2003, the neoconservative nexus in the administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, leaned heavily on the CIA to come up with intelligence to support the White House's preordained determination to go to war against Iraq. The pressure directed at Tenet, McLaughlin, and scores of other CIA managers, analysts, and field officers was intense. Subsequent official investigations, by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and by the commission co-chaired by Lawrence Silberman and Charles Robb, blithely passed over the question of whether intelligence analysts were pressured by the administration. Both studies determined that analysts were not pressured, a conclusion that CIA and other U.S. intelligence professionals find laughable -- especially the idea that analysts would answer in the affirmative when asked by commissioners or senators if they had been pressured. “The senior guys got together and said, ‘You guys weren't pressured, right? Right?'” says W. Patrick Lang, a former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Middle East section.
In fact, analysts were pressured, and heavily so, according to Richard Kerr. A 32-year CIA veteran, Kerr led an internal investigation of the agency's failure to correctly analyze Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities, preparing a series of four reports that have not been released publicly. Kerr joined the CIA in 1960, serving in a series of senior analytic posts, including director of East Asian analysis, the unit that prepared the president's daily intelligence brief, and finally as chief of the Directorate of Intelligence. For several months in 1991, Kerr was the acting CIA director; he retired in 1992. A highly respected analyst, Kerr received four Distinguished Intelligence Medals; in 1992, President George Bush Senior gave him the Citizen's Medal for his work during Operation Desert Storm.
Two years ago, Kerr was summoned out of retirement to lead a four-member task force to conduct the investigation of the weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco. His team, which included a former Near East Division chief, a former CIA deputy inspector general, and a former CIA chief Soviet analyst, spent months sorting through everything that the CIA produced on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion, as well as interviewing virtually everyone at the agency who had anything to do with producing the faulty intelligence estimates. The Kerr team's first report was an overview of what the CIA said about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before the war compared with what Kerr calls the postwar “ground truth.” The second looked specifically at a classified version of the important October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which the administration used to build its case for war. The third looked at the overall intelligence process, and the fourth was a think piece that considered how to reorganize the management of intelligence analysis “if you could start all over again.”
Kerr's four reports, with a fifth now under way, were viewed as the definitive works of self-criticism inside the agency and were shared with the oversight committees in Congress, outside commissions, and the office of the secretary of defense. Unlike the outside reports that looked at the same issues, however, Kerr's concluded that CIA analysts felt squeezed -- and hard -- by the administration. “Everybody felt pressure,” Kerr told me. “A lot of analysts believed that they were being pressured to come to certain conclusions … . I talked to a lot of people who said, ‘There was a lot of repetitive questioning. We were being asked to justify what we were saying again and again.' There were certainly people who felt they were being pushed beyond the evidence they had.”
In particular, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other administration officials hammered at the CIA to go back time and time again to look at intelligence that had already been sifted and resifted. “It was a continuing drumbeat: ‘How do you know this? How do you know that? What about this or that report in the newspaper?'” says Kerr. Many of those questions, which began to cascade onto the CIA in 2001, were generated by the Office of Special Plans and by discredited fabricators such as Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and a secret source code-named “Curveball.” As a result, says Kerr, the CIA reached back to old data, relied on several sources of questionable veracity, and made assumptions about current data that were unwarranted. In particular, intelligence on Iraq's biological and chemical weapons program, much of which was based on data collected in the 1980s, early '90s, and more spottily until the end of the United Nations inspection regime in 1998, was parsed -- and, some would argue, cherry-picked -- in order to reinforce the administration's case.
On and off the record, other former CIA officials say that despite the pressure, dissent against the White House was rife within the agency. The strongest opposition centered in the CIA's Near East Division, few of whose officials supported the idea of war with Iraq. They clashed often with WINPAC, the CIA division focused on weapons proliferation and the part of the agency most responsible for the heavily skewed conclusions about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. “The Near East Division people didn't buy into what the Bush administration wanted to do in regard to Iraq, but much of WINPAC did,” says Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer who left the agency in 1989 and then served four years as deputy director of the State Department's office of counterterrorism. “Bush, and the White House, favored WINPAC over [the Near East Division]. There were people in the agency who tried to speak out or disagree … who got fired, got transferred, got outed, or criticized. Others decided to play ball.”
Michael Scheuer -- who gained fame in 2004 as Anonymous, the author of Imperial Hubris, and who exited the CIA as Goss came in -- headed the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit and saw the confrontation up close. “I know a lot of people in the Iraq shop who were dissenting,” he says. “There were people who were disciplined or taken off accounts.” Opposition flared, particularly when the controversial 2002 National Intelligence Estimate was being cooked. “There was a great deal of dissent about that [estimate],” says Scheuer. “No one thought it was conclusive. One gentleman that I talked to, a senior Iraq analyst, regrets to this day that he did not go public.”
According to another former CIA official, as the war loomed, the CIA's Iraq task force ballooned in size, from fewer than 10 analysts to 500. But some of the CIA's best and brightest on Iraq asked to be given other assignments rather than play ball with an administration already set on war. “A lot of people from the Iraq shop asked to be transferred away from Iraq,” the former officer said. “You had all these people being transferred in, and the people who didn't like the direction it was going transferred out.”
Despite the vise-like squeeze on the CIA by Cheney and the Defense Department, the agency still got a lot on Iraq right. Not once in the period up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 did the U.S. intelligence community determine that Hussein posed a threat to the United States. The CIA concluded convincingly that there was no connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and that Hussein had no connection to bin Laden's attacks. “We, at CIA, were convinced within days -- within hours, by midday on September 11 -- that we had evidence that it was al-Qaeda and had no reason to suspect that Iraq was involved,” says a former high-level official. “That was our position, and we held to it firmly.” According to Scheuer, after the CIA received repeated inquiries about Iraq–al-Qaeda links from Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith's office, the agency reviewed more than 70,000 documents and pieces of data, concluding that there was no tie between Hussein and al-Qaeda.
The CIA also correctly concluded that Iraq was not even close to developing nuclear weapons. And, long before the war, the CIA told the White House that if the United States invaded Iraq and carried out a prolonged occupation, it would spark an insurgency like the one now tearing Iraq apart. “We did predict this in papers that we wrote,” says a former CIA official.
Paul Pillar was one of many inside the CIA who accurately foresaw the insurgency, according to Scheuer. A longtime CIA officer who served in battle-scarred venues such as Sri Lanka, Algeria, and Kashmir until becoming the national intelligence officer for the Middle East, Pillar “knows insurgencies inside out,” says Scheuer admiringly. “It's no surprise that Pillar would understand that there would be an insurgency in Iraq.”
By 2004, the CIA had issued a steady stream of finished intelligence products that, one after another, undermined the premises of the Bush administration's basic assertions about the occupation. The team that put these together included McLaughlin, the bloodied Near East Division analysts, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Not only did the CIA's work shoot holes in White House policy; several of its conclusions were leaked, finding their way on to the front pages of the major newspapers. More than anything else, it was these leaks that enraged Bush and Cheney and caused them to turn to Porter Goss as their enforcer.
The fact that the agency was leaking isn't denied by some. “Of course they were leaking,” says Pat Lang. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They'd say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won't re-elect this man.'”
The dissent within the agency, and the anger about being manipulated, were palpable by 2004. Equally palpable were the complaints about the agency emanating from the neoconservatives and other war supporters. In The New York Times, David Brooks was bloodthirsty. “If we lived in a primitive age,” he wrote, “the ground at Langley would be laid waste and salted, and there would be heads on spikes.” And Robert Novak, the principal conduit for the White House leak campaign against Plame and Wilson, concocted an indictment against Pillar for supposedly having leaked a CIA report that contradicted the most cherished assumptions of the administration about Iraq. The incident with Pillar, wrote Novak, “leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the president of the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency are at war with each other.” It made for a situation that Bush, facing re-election, wanted desperately to change. Brooks was about to get his wish.
Porter Johnston Goss is a well-bred Connecticut Yankee whose genteel family sent him to The Hotchkiss School and then to Yale University (class of 1960). The CIA that Goss joined in 1962 was still the Old Boys' club, an insiders' preserve for Ivy League grads and others of the “best and the brightest.” Goss married Mariel Robinson, daughter of a rich Pittsburgh industrial family -- “she's an heiress,” says a former CIA colleague -- and amassed even greater wealth. In 1999, Goss listed his net worth as more than $20 million.
Over the years, Goss has refused to say much about his career as a clandestine-services officer in the CIA, but several colleagues say that it was an undistinguished one, mostly in headquarters. “He was a nothing as a [Directorate of Operations] guy,” says one. “He served mostly a few [temporary duty] postings in Europe.” Goss apparently also served for a time in Mexico and the Caribbean, and likes to say things like, “I had some very interesting moments in the Florida Straits.”
In any case, by 1971, stricken with a life-threatening staph infection, Goss quit the agency and moved to sunny Florida. For a time, he co-owned a chintzy newspaper, the Island Reporter, which he later sold for what he called an “obscene” amount. He drifted into local politics, and in 1988 was elected to Congress from Florida's 14th District. Ensconced in the 14th, the state's most Republican district, Goss frequently ran unopposed or won re-election by huge margins, with virtually all of his campaign contributions coming from business. Not surprisingly, he adopted the right-wing agenda.
It wasn't long before Goss was trading on his hush-hush CIA background. His first official brush with intelligence was to serve as a Republican member of the special task force assembled to investigate the 1980 “October Surprise” allegations claiming that Bush Senior and William Casey, the late CIA director, had struck a secret deal with Iran's ayatollahs in advance of the November 1980 election to prevent the release of U.S. hostages held in Tehran. It was no surprise that Goss, acting to protect then–Vice President Bush, found no truth to the story. In 1994 he served on one of those what's-wrong-with-intelligence commissions that turn up every few years.
By 1996, Goss, having established an alliance with Newt Gingrich, got himself named to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). Gingrich's support for Goss was critical to the Florida congressman's success, because Gingrich -- far more than any other speaker of the House in recent times -- maintained an extraordinary interest in intelligence issues and, unusually, served as an ex-officio member of the HPSCI. Goss cemented his tie to Gingrich by chairing the subcommittee tasked with investigating ethics charges against the speaker. Within days of being mostly cleared, Gingrich selected Goss as chairman of the HPSCI, the post he would hold until being nominated to run the CIA in 2004.
Another key bond was formed in this period: Gardiner Peckham, Gingrich's right-hand man on intelligence issues, would eventually become a close friend of Patrick Murray, who off and on served as an HPSCI staffer under Goss. To many who worked with him on the Hill, Goss was seen as a prisoner of his staff -- above all, of Murray. During one confrontation over a controversial piece of legislation, when other members challenged Goss, he deferred to Murray. “Goss looked sad and apologetic, and he looked at us and said, ‘Pat runs the show,'” according to a source. “We all wondered, ‘What does Pat Murray have on Porter Goss?'”
During his years as HPSCI chairman, Goss established himself as a friend of the CIA, preferring partnership to oversight. When Bush took over in 2001, it was Cheney who persuaded Goss not to retire from Congress, as he had pledged to do, and for a time Goss was viewed as a replacement for Tenet in the Bush administration. However, Tenet obsequiously cultivated the Bush family, going so far as to name the CIA's Langley headquarters after George Bush Senior, and Tenet was asked to stay on. But Goss retained the support of Cheney. In May 2001, speaking about intelligence, Goss praised Cheney to The New Yorker. “You need to take risks,” he said. “We need leadership. Cheney is certainly the man who can provide it. He understands risk. He understands bold leadership. He understands purpose.”
Meanwhile, Murray, according to former HPSCI staff, stayed even closer to Cheney's White House office and the network of neoconservatives who'd taken up key posts in the Bush administration. “There was a sense that [Murray], even more than Porter, was close to the folks at the White House,” says a former HPSCI staffer. “And that [Murray] was making everything happen, with lots of meetings at the White House, with Cheney's office, and House leadership.”
And in 2004, with tempers flaring between the White House and the agency, Goss, despite his longtime advocacy for the CIA, turned on a dime and issued a report that blasted it for having lost its way. Seemingly overnight, Goss decided that the CIA was a “stilted bureaucracy incapable of even the slightest bit of success.” The CIA, said Goss, is mismanaged, has a “political aversion to risk,” and “continues down the road leading over a proverbial cliff.” For many at the agency, it was a sign that Goss was auditioning for the job of intelligence reformer, but his newfound zeal for reform bemused CIA partisans. “He served on the HPSCI for eight years,” says Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. “What the fuck was he doing for the last seven years?”
But if Goss lambasted the CIA, he never wavered in his fealty to the Bush-Cheney team. When David Kay, the CIA's point man on searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, said that the weapons weren't there, Goss told a packed news conference, “Those weapons are there.” He defended Bush-Cheney right down the line on Iraq policy, blocking efforts in the House or at the hpsci to investigate prewar intelligence about the weapons. He blocked an inquiry about Abu Ghraib, too. And when it became apparent that White House officials had leaked Plame's name, Goss ridiculed the idea of investigating what was, according to nearly all intelligence officials, a significant breach of national security. “Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I'll have an investigation,” sniffed Goss.
His nomination didn't exactly win plaudits, and four Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence -- including the ranking Democrat, Jay Rockefeller -- voted against it. But in the end, the Democrats rolled over, choosing not to make a fight on the eve of the elections. On September 24, he took over.
Within weeks of Goss' arrival, it was clear that the agency had been plunged into turmoil. One after another, top CIA officials bolted: first McLaughlin; then Stephen Kappes and Michael Sulick, the top two officials in the Directorate of Operations; Jami Miscik, who headed the Directorate of Intelligence, and her deputy, Scott White; Buzzy Krongard, the CIA's executive director; Mary Margaret Graham, a senior counterterrorism official; the heads of the European and East Asia divisions; and many more. Pillar, the Middle East national intelligence officer, took retirement. Many others, less prominent, also quit, were fired, or took jobs as consultants. Rockefeller, watching from the sidelines, said Goss “faces rumors of a partisan purge at the CIA.”
Leading the purge were Murray, who followed Goss to Langley, and perhaps half a dozen other HPSCI staffers who joined them, including Merrell Moorhead and Jay Jakub. Nearly all of them had poor reputations at the HPSCI. California Democratic Representative Jane Harman, hardly a critic of the CIA, said Goss has assembled a “highly partisan, inexperienced staff,” noting that “[f]rankly, on both sides of the aisle in the committee, we were happy to see them go.” And the CIA, where they were referred to as the “Hitler youth,” was not exactly happy to see them arrive.
Many of these departures made headlines, none more so than the confrontation between Murray and Mary Margaret Graham, who, according to a former colleague, was serving as the CIA's chief of station in New York on 9-11. Murray treated Graham, a 27-year CIA veteran, so imperiously that the ensuring fracas led to the resignations of both Kappes and Sulick. According to several former CIA officers who served with Kappes and Sulick, both former Moscow chiefs of station who had only assumed the reins at the Directorate of Operations months earlier, the two men were among the most highly respected agency officers. “The real loss was Steve Kappes,” says Mike Scheuer. “He would have been one of the best [deputy directors of operations].” Says another clandestine-services officer with more than 25 years of experience: “Goss got rid of them like they were nothing. His attitude was, ‘You guys leaked stuff against the president. You're disloyal, and you need to be punished.'”
The purge was felt down the line, with various chiefs of station, division heads, and other top officials bailing out. No section was harder hit than the already rattled Near East Division. At least two consecutive Baghdad chiefs of station have quit or been fired, and division's staff at headquarters has been nearly swept clean of its experienced officials. “All over the agency, the talk is about the steady stream of people leaving,” says one veteran CIA officer. “People are disillusioned, and there seems to be no relief from the sense that there is no fixing this.” In the Near East Division, especially in the section that focuses on Iraq, many are gone. “What you've got left is a bunch of kids,” this officer said. “You've got a bunch of newbies in there -- some very smart, but with no experience.” Another former CIA chief of station said: “There aren't any Arabists left in the CIA. They're gone. They weren't with the program. It's like Pol Pot, who killed anybody wearing glasses because they might be able to read.”
Most troubling to agency watchers -- including Harman, who says that the CIA's “free fall” is a “very, very bad omen in the middle of a war” -- is that the people exiting the CIA are those with decades of experience. “The intelligence process is based on experience,” says one grizzled CIA veteran. “It's the 10,000 at-bat syndrome. It's more an art than a science, and it is very difficult to teach. We're talking about an agency that has no bench. When you take out the A-team, there's no one.”
Another retired chief of station, who maintains close ties inside the CIA, said that scores of top agency officials have scattered. Some have made deals with contractors, returning to the CIA sporting the green badge signifying that they are from the private sector, yet working alongside CIA officers doing the same job for half as much money. Others have taken jobs in the military-industrial complex. And still others are flocking to the new office of the director of national intelligence, led by Negroponte. “What's left behind are what you'd call the less enlightened people,” he says. “Hot molecules escape; the cold ones are left behind.”
Without a doubt, Goss' team is the most highly partisan ever to run the CIA. The ex–HPSCI staffers were notorious for taking a Republican Party–oriented stance on many issues, especially Murray, who once tried to get classified information released so it could be used against the Democrats. Under Goss, the CIA public-affairs office has been nearly shut down, under the tight control of Jennifer Millerwise -- not an intelligence person, but a political operative who worked on the Bush-Cheney election campaigns and for Goss at the HPSCI. The partisan, pro-Bush nature of the current regime at the CIA was underlined when Goss issued a widely leaked memorandum telling agency employees to “support the administration and its policies in our work,” adding, “As agency employees we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies.”
The import of Goss' memo to staff was not lost on agency veterans. “The meaning was that from now on, there is only one acceptable view, and that's the neocon view,” said one. For many it was the final straw, convincing them that there was no hope of salvaging independent analysis. “At the [Directorate of Intelligence], they're wondering, ‘What is our job now, now that our boss doesn't seem to care about us anyway?'” says Gregory Treverton, who served on the National Intelligence Council under Bill Clinton.
On the seventh floor at Langley, Goss is reportedly isolated. His staff protects him from agency veterans. It is said that he doesn't walk the halls or mix readily with the troops, doesn't eat in the CIA cafeteria, and gets chilly stares from employees. Many of them are angry that Goss has quietly allowed Negroponte to usurp traditional CIA roles, such as briefing the president on daily intelligence. “He's seen as a weak leader, not as an advocate,” says one recently retired Middle East CIA officer. “So the agency is losing its position of influence.” Having clashed early with the Directorate of Operations, Goss has alienated -- some say irreparably -- the heart of the CIA: its clandestine service. “Without the [Directorate of Operations], the CIA is the Brookings Institution with razor wire,” says one former agent. Another adds: “The [Directorate of Operations] won't forgive Goss. With the [directorate], you are either an ‘us' or a ‘them.' With the start Goss made, he was firmly placed in the ‘them' category.”
Chas W. Freeman is a former assistant secretary of defense and U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. “What Goss is doing is an effort that originated outside the agency to impose a vision on it that its analysts and operatives reject as simply not based on reality,” he says. “It's totalitarian. We are going to end up with an agency that is more right-wing, more conformist, and less prone to produce people with original views and dissenters.”
Demoralized, weakened, and politicized, the CIA may yet recover. The agency, particularly the Directorate of Operations, has weathered storms before and knows how to hunker down. Goss will probably not remain at the helm for long. And despite him, the agency continues to produce reports on the U.S. predicament in Iraq that reflect a measure of reality-based pessimism. But there is anger, bitterness, and an unhealthy caution that ill serves America's need for an agency that, as one former CIA officer says, “speaks truth to power.” Enormous damage has been done, and the rebuilding of the CIA will take many years after Goss departs.
Robert Dreyfuss is a Prospect senior correspondent. He covers national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for The Nation and Mother Jones. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, was published this fall by Henry Holt/Metropolitan.