Friday, May 6, 2011

The Bush Administration's Profoundly Awful Intelligence Policies Actually Prevented the CIA from Finding bin Laden

It shouldn't come as any surprise that many supporters of former President Bush are now rushing to sing the praises of the policies that killed Osama bin Laden, and while the prominence of the sexier of those policies -- enhanced interrogation, indefinite detention, rendition, etc. -- is still murky at the moment, there is one policy that conservatives seemed to have forgotten: the Bush administration's all-out war with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Starting some time in the first half of 2002, CIA was on the losing end of just about every bureaucratic struggle it fought with the White House. Some folks blame Donald Rumsfeld for this, the theory being that CIA's successful invasion of Afghanistan made the Pentagon look bad. Whatever the causes, there can be little denying that CIA's relationship with the White House was so abysmal that it's little wonder bin Laden wasn't found until after Bush left office.

The list of CIA's grievances is extensive. Many analysts thought their portfolios were being taken from them and delivered to the nebulous Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon during the run-up to the Iraq War. VP Cheney apparently applied pressure to Iraq analysts in the Agency to come up with the necessary connections that would build a case for war. And when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, just about everyone at the Agency felt they were unjustly blamed despite warning the White House before the war.

CIA's relationship to the Bush White House was pretty much over at this point. Bush never seemed to trust the CIA again after the WMD fiasco. There's even reason to suggest that Bush thought elements within CIA were trying to sabotage him political (see the Joe Wilson affair).

The war in Iraq also started to give the Agency fits. First, it distracted them from an already difficult mission in Afghanistan, where bin Laden and much of the leadership of the Taliban were still at large. Then the Iraq insurgency got out of hand and required CIA to devote even more energy and resources to a situation they were never crazy about to begin with. The relationship was so dysfunctional that by the end of 2003 CIA agents were grumbling to the press at an unprecedented level.

2004 got off to a terrible start with the leak of an undercover operative by the White House, an event that many in CIA took to be a petty act of political vengeance. During this time, the Bush White House started developing closer to ties to the National Security Agency, not only because they were in charge of the controversial eavesdropping  program, but also because they operated under the auspices of Rumsfeld's Pentagon. Morale at the agency was apparently awful and made worse by the fact that a number of their operations were outsourced to private contractors who, in many cases, were former Agency employees now working at a significant pay increase.

In the middle of the year DCI George Tenet left and gave Bush the chance to appoint one of his own guys to the Agency. He picked Porter Goss a then-Congressman who brought in his Congressional staff and immediately began butting heads with career intelligence officials, presumably at the behest of the White House. Goss tenure was marked by the departure of enormous swathes of CIA's senior leadership who took with them decades of experience and was largely considered a disaster. He was so awful that Bush even canned him out of the blue one Friday afternoon.

Aside from crushing morale inside the Agency, Goss tenure mas marked by an almost total stripping of authority and prestige when the Intelligence Community was reorganized and the Director of CIA was replaced as de facto leader of the community by the Office of the Director of National Security, which was another huge of the Agency's turf. It was also during Goss' reign that the Iraq insurgency went to hell and the demand for reliable intelligence was at its greatest since the war began, intelligence that was nearly impossible to obtain due to all of the dysfunction back at Langley. Once again, CIA shouldered much of the blame.

Oh yeah, all this time the CIA was put in charge of the enhanced interrogation program even though interrogations had been the purview of the FBI and Army. They had no experience, resisted the program at first and bore all the legal risk.

When Goss was finally shown the door, Bush appoint NSA director Michael Hayden to the post. in 2006 Though Hayden was widely respected in the community, there were concerns about his ties to Rumsfeld and  Pentagon largely because he would still retain his rank in the Air Force (and uniform), even as director of what is ostensibly a civilian agency. Again, most people in the agency interpreted the move to be the Wite House's way of ensuring the primacy of electronic and signals intelligence, both the fortes of NSA, over CIA's human intelligence gathering strengths. This isn't a small detail. Even though the Bush administration increased the budgets of the intelligence community, much of the money apparently went to funding satellites and other electronic intercepting equipment.

Why? Because from the very beginning the Bush Administration was not satisfied with the timeliness of human intelligence, which frequently takes years to develop sources. It was also human intel that created the WMD fiasco in Iraq. They wanted instant gratification and were willing to sacrifice quality for quantity; so instead of training language interpreters, money went to voice pattern recognition software.

Even collecting intelligence on the battlefield played second fiddle to appeasing the social conservative wing of the Bush Administration's political base when the Pentagon kicked out over 60 linguists for being gay.

The final straw occurred when Bush commuted Scooter Libby's sentence in the leak case. There was really no other way to read the move being anything other than a slap in the Agency's face.

The Bush Administration was at war with the intelligence community for a vast majority of Bush's time in office. These policies essentially drove away experience and talent, withheld resources and crippled the Agency's mission at a time when the President said the country needed it most. It is absolutely asinine to suggest that these policies lead to the death of Osama bin Laden.

Tensions only really started to ease when Robert Gates, himself a former DCI, was appointed Secretary of Defense. When Obama appointed Leon Penetta -- a consummate bureaucratic operator -- to be DCI, it was clear he was being brought in to clean up the mess made by the Bush administration. The bin Laden raid was an enormous success for an agency that has been kicked around for most of the last decade.

In the final analysis, the Bush Administration may have had the worst Intelligence policy in American history. They held grudges, didn't learn lessons from mistakes, they deliberately antagonized the very people who were charged with collecting intelligence, they were believed they were better at the job then the experts ... and at the end of the day it all added up to create a situation where the White House really didn't even trust the CIA, the agency that is the final arbiter of what is fact.

And Congress, which is responsible for oversight of the intel community, basically deferred to the White House's lead.

The point is this: it doesn't matter if the intel that helped catch bin Laden came from someone being waterboarded at Gitmo in the big picture. All of the controversial policies that involved tough ethical questions are almost insignificant compared to the massive management policies that the Bush White House botched time and time again. These policies actually prevented CIA from catching bin Laden.

And probably no other policy displays that fact more than the Bush Administation's attitudes toward Pakistan. In Pervez Musharraf, the Bush Administration thought they had an ally and were determined to keep him in power. What they probably didn't consider is that part of the calculus of keeping Musharraf in power may have been the General's ability to placate elements in the Pakistani military that were aiding Al-Qaeda. The Bush Administration let Pakistan dictate the extent of CIA involvement in their country, even though, most people were pretty sure that's where Al-Qaeda was hiding. They may have been correct in trusting Musharraf, but asking a country how many spies the US can keep inside it's borders sort of defeats the entire purpose of espionage.

This was no way to run an intelligence organization.

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