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Seven Questions: Fixing U.S. Intelligence

The selection of Gen. Michael Hayden to succeed Porter Goss as director of the CIA raises questions about intelligence reform once again. Michael Scheuer, former chief of the Osama bin Laden unit at the CIA, explains to FP why he thinks Hayden is the wrong choice for the job, why intelligence on Iran is so poor, and why he thinks Iraq “is finished.”

FOREIGN POLICY: Is Michael Hayden the right choice for the CIA?

Michael Scheuer: No. As a professional intelligence officer, the last people you want to report to are generals and diplomats. And if General Hayden comes to the CIA, well have Mr. Negroponte [a career diplomat] as head of the community, and a general as the head of the CIA. They are not particularly good at taking bad news to the president, in the experience of most intelligence officers. So General Hayden is not the right choice. I also think that it kind of beggars the imagination in the sense that every one of the commissions that investigated 9/11 or Iraq said that we didnt have enough HUMINT [human intelligence], and now were going to have 16 or 17 intelligence community componentsnot one of which will have anyone with HUMINT experience at its head.

The last time we had a flag-rank officer at CIA was Adm. Stansfield Turner. He gutted the human collection capability to focus on technical collection: satellites and wiretaps and that sort of thing. So one hopes thats not repeated. But General Haydens experience is almost entirely in technical collection.

FP: How do you view Porter Gosss tenure at the CIA?

MS: I personally believe that Porter Goss is a good man, in the sense that I think hes smart. The people I know who worked with him on terrorist issues, for example, found him engaged, knowledgeable, and asking good questions. Yet he surrounded himself with a bunch of people that appear to have been sycophants and really civility-challenged. There was no need to be as abrasive and, frankly, as rude and crude as that bunch was. And Im afraid that history will show that Mr. Goss may have been a good director but crippled himself by his choice of lieutenants.

FP: What role should the agency have in this enlarged intelligence structure, with the addition of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)?

MS: We should concentrate on what we do best, which is human intelligence. The agency, more than anything, needs someone to defend it. We had the information that would have enabled the Clinton administration to kill Osama bin Laden in 1998 and 1999. We provided the information that would have enabled the Bush administration to kill Moqtada al-Sadr two summers ago. We provided the information that would have allowed [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi to be yesterdays memory. Someone needs to stand up and say, Listen, is the agency perfect? The answer is no. Has it done its job to the best of its ability? Yes. And most of the intelligence failures we have had have been failures to act on information, not from lack of information.

[The DNI] has bloated the intelligence system as far as I can tell. Its just another layer of control, editing, review. And its another step in preventing the truth as the intelligence community sees it from getting to the president. Its a tremendously unfortunate situation. Congress needed to help the intelligence community and instead allowed themselves to be railroaded by the families of the 9/11 victims to pass a bill that was disastrous. It was a shameful performance. It was like Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall calling in the families of the sailors that died at Pearl Harbor and saying, Listen, we have a problem here with imperial Japan. What should we do? It doesnt make sense. Its not professional, and now were stuck with a law thats a travesty.

FP: Does the CIA have the resources it needs to properly fulfill its role?

MS: I dont think were lacking in resources, at least on the terrorism issue. Among the cheapest operations to run are HUMINT operations. We were never short of money to conduct counterterrorism operations. What we were short of was leadership. The agency has had a long track record now of very mediocre people being at its head. We had two very good directors in William J. Casey and William Webster followed by a really abysmal parade of people. James Woolsey was a neocon ideologue whom the White House hated. We had John Deutsch, who at the end of the day had to be pardoned by President Clinton to avoid legal problems. George Tenet seemed more interested in being everyones friend than in being a leader. He was really our first rock star [director of central intelligence]. And Porter Goss really never gave himself a chance to prove his capabilities because he surrounded himself with people who were both untalented and obnoxious.

FP: People have said that U.S. intelligence on Iran is poor. Why is that?

MS: Its poor because we havent been there since 1979. People talk about new ways of doing intelligence, and new ways of working without a presence in a country. Thats all talk. You can do a certain amount of that. But without a physical presence, its very hard to collect intelligence. If you dont have an embassy, a consulate, or a physical presence, youre dependent on people coming out to meet you or on signals intelligence. One of the big problems in Iraq was that we hadnt had a presence there since the first Gulf War, and we depended on opposition people to give us information about Saddam. And it appears that the information supplied by [Ahmad] Chalabi and others was pretty close to perfect, in the sense of being perfectly wrong.

FP: What is your one-year outlook on Iraq?

MS: I think Iraq is finished. Well just find a way to get out. I frankly dont think we ever intended to win there. We certainly didnt send enough troops to close borders, to control the country. [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld was obsessed, apparently with his new, lighter, faster military. The inflow of fighters is growing. The pace of the insurgency, both there and in Afghanistan, is increasing. I dont hold much of a brief for Sen. John McCain, but hes right, in an unpalatable way: Unless we greatly increase the number of troops we have in Iraq, were going to have to leave. I think the question is how do we leave? Do we leave with some dignity, or do we leave by flying off the top of the embassy as we did in Saigon?

FP: Apart from Iran and Iraq, where do you think the intelligence community needs to be focusing its attention?

MS: Its an absolute disaster for American law enforcement and for the FBI to have no control over who comes into and out of our country. They spend tens of billions of dollars on gadgets and electronics at official checkpoints. Well, if al Qaeda is stupid enough to carry their weapons through the gate at the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel, then they might get stopped. If they roll across the Niagara River near Buffalo, then theyre home free. Sadly, neither party in congress has helped law enforcement.

The second thing we desperately need is an accelerated program to control the former Soviet nuclear arsenal. We know that bin Laden has been using hired scientists and engineers to acquire these weapons since 1992. He has now had 14 years to try and do that. And I recently read that the program to control the Soviet nuclear arsenal is well less than half complete. To me, the two touchstones of American security are controlling the borders and securing all of the Soviet nuclear weapons. If you dont do those [things], the intelligence community can help you overseas, but the domestic target is wide open.

Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for more than 20 years. He is the author of Through My Enemies Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America and Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror.

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