CIA Vs. Congress Vs. The White House

WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 12: U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) listens during a taping of "Meet the Press" at the NBC studios February 12, 2006 in Washington, DC. Hoekstra discussed issues on the legitimacy of U.S. President George W. Bush's eavesdropping program.
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This column was written by David Corn.

It's hard to know who to root for in the continuing scuffles between the Republican Congress, the White House and the CIA over the intelligence agency. The latest round — actually, it's a postdated tussle — was triggered by a May 18, 2006, letter that Representative Peter Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, sent to George W. Bush raising protests on three fronts: recent appointments at the CIA, the new Director of National Intelligence office, and the White House's failure to brief Congress about certain covert programs, which Hoekstra didn't name in his letter. (The letter was first disclosed by The New York Times on July 9.)

It was easy for some to see Hoekstra as a heroic reformer challenging secret government. Truthdig.org named Hoekstra the "Truthdigger of the Week." But the spy wars of Washington are not linear affairs, and the battle lines murky. Is the CIA a rotting institution that failed prior to 9/11 and then provided Bush flawed intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq? Or is it a bastion of risk-averse conventionalists who have undermined Bush's ambitious, forward-looking national security agenda (which includes the Iraq war)? The CIA has been getting it from the left and the right in recent years. And it's unclear whether the top tier of the agency ought to be backed or booted.

When Porter Goss, a Republican who preceded Hoekstra as chairman of the House intelligence committee, was CIA director, he placed his political aides in charge of the agency, and the career officers rebelled. Several of the most experienced CIA veterans — including Stephen Kappes, the director of operations, resigned rather than deal with the Goss crew. The CIA people viewed the Goss gang as hacks motivated by political concerns; Goss and his allies saw the CIA career leadership as bureaucrats resistant to change. (Goss resigned as CIA chief in May; he was replaced by General Michael Hayden, who, as the National Security Agency chief, was a longtime intelligence professional.)

Enter Hoekstra and his letter. What received the most attention was his charge that his committee had not been briefed about "some alleged Intelligence Community activities." He added, "If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the Administration, a violation of law, and, just as importantly, a direct affront to me and the Members o this committee." Hoekstra did not say what secrets the White House had been keeping from him. Open-government fans cheered Hoekstra's pointed reminder to Bush: The law says you cannot run covert programs on your own without telling Congress. And on Fox News Sunday, the day his letter was disclosed, Hoekstra said his letter had done the trick and that subsequently he was briefed about this intelligence activity — which he still would not identify. (Hoekstra is not much of a maverick; he has not rushed to hold public hearings on such matters as the controversial and arguably illegal NSA domestic wiretapping program.)

Another point Hoekstra made in his letter was important. He expressed his concern that the new DNI office has become a "large, bureaucratic, and hierarchical structure." If there was a need for a DNI — which supposedly is supposed to coordinate the various intelligence agencies of the U.S. government, including the CIA — there was no reason to create another intelligence bureaucracy. The intelligence community would benefit more from streamlining than from an expanding management. So score Hoekstra another point here.

But the first topic Hoekstra raised in his letter shows he can be loopy. Hoekstra voiced his displeasure over the selection of Hayden, an Air Force general, to be the CIA director, noting that he wanted a civilian to head a civilian agency. But what really ticked him off was the selection of Kappes to be the new number-two at the agency. Bringing back Kappes, Hoekstra wrote, would lead to "political problems" at the agency. What did Hoekstra mean by this? He explained: "I have been long concerned that a strong and well-positioned group within the Agency intentionally undermined the Administration and its policies. This argument is supported by the Ambassador Wilson/Valerie Plame events, as well as by the string of unauthorized disclosures from an organization that prides itself with being able to keep secrets." Kappes, he added, is part of this group.