CIA at 50, Lost in the ‘Politicization’ Swamp

From the Archive: Almost 20 years ago even before the Iraq WMD fiasco as the CIA was celebrating its half-century anniversary, the impact of a Reagan-era “reorganization” was being felt in the “politicization” of intelligence, Robert Parry wrote in 1997. Now, a new reorganization could make matters worse.

By Robert Parry (Originally published in 1997)

Through its first three decades, the CIA prided itself on maintaining an intellectual integrity in its analysis of world events. CIA analysts often delivered to the White House data that conflicted with what presidents wanted to hear. President Eisenhower was challenged on the bomber gap and President Kennedy on the missile gap. Presidents Johnson and Nixon didn’t like many of the discouraging words on the Vietnam War.

The CIA’s “operations” branch may have stumbled into bloody controversies from time to time. But the CIA’s “analytical” division maintained a relatively good — though by no means perfect — reputation for supplying straightforward intelligence to policymakers.

Former CIA Director (and later Defense Secretary) Robert Gates.

Former CIA Director (and later Defense Secretary) Robert Gates.

Like so much else at the CIA, however, that tradition changed in the early 1980s, with Ronald Reagan’s determination to enforce his “Evil Empire” vision of the Soviet Union. The writing was quickly on the wall. The Reagan transition team denounced CIA career analysts for allegedly underestimating the Soviet commitment to world domination.

“These failures are of such enormity,” the report claimed, “that they cannot help but suggest to any objective observer that the agency itself is compromised to an unprecedented extent and that its paralysis is attributable to causes more sinister than incompetence.” [See Mark Perry’s Eclipse.]

To make Reagan’s apocalyptic vision stick — to blame Moscow for the world’s terrorism, Yellow Rain chemical warfare in Indochina, the Pope assassination attempt and virtually all revolutionary movements in the Third World — Reagan and his CIA Director William J. Casey set out to purge the CIA analytical division of those who wouldn’t toe the party line, those who saw the Soviet Union as a declining empire still interested in detente with the West.

The CIA purge helped Reagan and Casey in another way, too. It cut off the potential for reliable CIA information reaching Congress and the public about scandals in the U.S. overt-covert paramilitary operations in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Casey’s domestic “perception management” campaigns which sought to influence the U.S. public debate on these issues also would be strengthened by ensuring only favorable CIA-blessed propaganda. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

So out of view, in the closed community of the CIA, Casey elevated Robert Gates, one of the hardest of anti-Soviet hard-liners, to head the Directorate of Intelligence [DI], the analytical side.

In summer 1997 issue of Foreign Policy, former CIA senior analyst Melvin A. Goodman described the effect: “The CIA’s objectivity on the Soviet Union ended abruptly in 1981, when Casey became the DCI — and the first one to be a member of the president’s Cabinet. Gates became Casey’s deputy director for intelligence (DDI) in 1982 and chaired the National Intelligence Council.”

Gates restructured the DI from a subject-matter framework to a geographical one. That allowed Gates to jump his allies, who became known as “Gates clones,” into key positions. Some of those who rose were David Cohen, David Carey, George Kolt, John McLaughlin, Jim Lynch, Winston Wiley and John Gannon.

With the Gates regime in place, career analysts in sensitive positions soon found themselves the victims of bare-knuckle bureaucratic pummelings. Some were verbally berated into changing their analyses; some faced job threats and allegations of psychiatric unfitness; others experienced confrontations with supervisors who literally threw papers in the analysts’ faces.

Hyping the ‘Evil Empire’

Early on, the Reagan administration pressed the CIA to adopt an analysis that accepted right-wing media reports pinning European terrorism on the Soviets. The CIA analysts knew that these charges were false, in part because they were based on “black” or false propaganda that the CIA itself had been planting in the European media.

But the “politicization” tide was strong. In 1985, Gates closeted a special team to push through another pre-cooked paper arguing that the KGB was behind the 1981 wounding of Pope John Paul II. CIA analysts again knew that the charge was bogus, but could not block the paper from leaving CIA.

On another ideologically sensitive front, analysts faced pressure to back off an assessment that Pakistan was violating nuclear proliferation safeguards. That was sensitive because Pakistan’s military government was aiding the Afghan mujahedeen rebels fighting Soviet troops.

Reagan also wanted analyses that exaggerated Soviet strength and Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. Again, the analysts found the evidence lacking, but the administration prevailed in hyping threat analyses. Analysts grew so fearful of reporting on Soviet weaknesses that the CIA fell way behind the curve in recognizing the coming Soviet collapse.

On many levels, the Casey-Gates assault on the CIA analysts was a dramatic behind-the-scenes story that contributed to historic developments in the 1980s: the brutal anti-communist tactics in Central America, tolerance of human rights abusers and drug traffickers among U.S. allies, false CIA reports about “moderates” in Iran that justified the Iran-Contra arms sales, and scary assessments of Soviet might which bloated U.S. defense budgets.

But this intimidation of the CIA analysts and its consequences are still little understood in Washington. The story surfaced briefly in 1991 during Robert Gates’s confirmation hearings when a handful of analysts braved the Bush administration by protesting the “politicization of intelligence.” Led by Goodman, these dissidents fingered Gates as a key player in the campaign.

The “politicization” testimony added more doubts about Gates, who already was under fire for his dubious testimony on the Iran-Contra scandal. But President Bush lined up solid Republican backing and enough accommodating Democrats, particularly Sen. David Boren, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, to shove Gates through as CIA director.

Clinton’s Opening

There was, however, a brief window for change with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 — and the issue was put before Clinton’s incoming national security team. Former CIA analyst Peter W. Dickson explained the problem bluntly in a two-page memo to Samuel “Sandy” Berger, who later became Clinton’s national security adviser.

Dickson, an analyst who suffered retaliation for refusing to rewrite a 1983 assessment that noted Soviet restraint on nuclear proliferation, urged Clinton to appoint a CIA director who understood “the deeper internal problems relating to the politicization of intelligence and the festering morale problem within the CIA.” In this Dec. 10, 1992, memo, Dickson saw a housecleaning at the top as crucial:

“This problem of intellectual corruption will not disappear overnight, even with vigorous remedial action. However, the new CIA director will be wise if he realizes from the start the dangers in relying on the advice of senior CIA office managers who during the past 12 years advanced and prospered in their careers precisely because they had no qualms about suppressing intelligence or slanting analysis to suit the interest of Casey and Gates. This is a deep systemic problem. …

“The lack of accountability also became a systemic problem in the 1980s under Casey and Gates. … A recent CIA inspector general investigation confirms the near total breakdown in confidence among employee[s] that management is willing to deal honestly and objectively with their complaints. Many of them concern the lack of professional ethics and in some cases personal abuse at the hands of senior officer managers — a group of individuals beholden and therefore loyal to Gates.”

Dickson, a creative thinker who also investigates historical mysteries such as the real backgrounds of Columbus and Shakespeare, recommended that Clinton focus on “intellectual integrity and accountability” in selecting a new CIA director. But Clinton instead was focusing “like a laser beam” on domestic policy, as he promised during the campaign. He seemed to have little interest in CIA reform.

Clinton did oust Gates but avoided confronting the problem head-on by installing James Woolsey, a neoconservative Democrat who had worked closely with the Reagan-Bush administrations. Under Woolsey, the Gates crowd, sans Gates, further consolidated its bureaucratic power. That trend continued during the brief tenure of Clinton’s second CIA director, John Deutch.

The ‘Gates Clones’

Clinton’s next CIA director, George Tenet, also has chosen to surround himself with many of Gates’s former allies. Tenet did oust Cohen, whom the analysts considered one of Gates’s most aggressive enforcers. But other Gates-connected officials — McLaughlin, Carey, Wiley and Gannon — remained in high positions inside the CIA.

Over those 15 years, the Casey-Gates allies also trained a younger generation of analysts who moved into mid-level positions. Seeing the Casey-Gates crowd still dominating the senior levels of the CIA has discouraged many of the analysts who went public to protest the “politicization.”

In interviews, these former CIA analysts complained that Clinton allowed the CIA’s drift from the Reagan-Bush years to carry the analytical division even deeper into a backwater of shoddy scholarship and low morale.

“Clinton missed an opportunity to get the CIA on the right track,” said Goodman. “The CIA’s in a hell of a lot of trouble.”

“He blew it,” declared Dickson. “He threw it away. It’s too late now.”

Dickson predicted that the CIA, just passing its 50th anniversary, would continue on a path of gradual decline and growing irrelevance. [Dickson’s prediction proved prescient given the cascade of later failures under CIA Director Tenet.]

“I don’t see any improvement,” added John A. Gentry, an analyst who resigned in 1991 with a letter that read: “I can no longer work in an organization in which satisfaction of bureaucratic superiors is more important than superior analysis.”

Gentry, a former Army Special Forces officer and economist, compiled his criticisms in a 1993 book, Lost Promise: How CIA Analysis Misserves the Nation. One recommendation stated that “the destructiveness of some managers’ meanness, dishonesty and lack of intellectual integrity is so great that significant numbers — including many senior officers — should be fired from the Agency.”

But Gentry concluded that Clinton would not reverse the damage. “You’re 15 years into decay,” Gentry said. Clinton’s CIA appointees have “fussed around at the margins, but they haven’t made the cultural, leadership and even moral changes that are needed.”

Ducking a Fight

Clinton seemed to have thought that as long as he pumped money into the intelligence budget — about $30 billion a year — and took no stern actions against the Langley power structure, the CIA would make no trouble for him.

His attitude apparently was colored by the perception that President Carter’s shake-up of the CIA in the late 1970s drove a small clandestine army of furious spooks into the Bush and Reagan campaigns of 1980. With Clinton’s sensitivity over his Vietnam draft avoidance, he also saw a messy clash over restructuring the CIA as a distraction from his domestic agenda.

“I see no indication anywhere that Clinton has taken any interest in anything that has occurred,” said Gentry. “Clinton is quite content to have a weak intelligence community.”

Still, Clinton found that his hands-off strategy did not save him from getting burned in fall 1993 when he was seeking to restore Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. The CIA analytical division, built by Casey and Gates, sent a report to Congress which claimed, apparently falsely, that Aristide had undergone psychiatric care in Canada. The report was seized upon by conservatives in Congress who considered Aristide a dangerous leftist.

Woolsey’s tenure was marred, too, by the discovery that CIA counter-intelligence officer Aldrich Ames sold secrets to Moscow for almost a decade. Congress turned on Woolsey for supposedly not acting decisively enough to discipline senior officers who had supervised Ames.

Deutch, a brilliant but prickly scientist from MIT, succeeded Woolsey but made few significant changes at the CIA, either. Then after a failed attempt by Clinton to place his national security adviser Anthony Lake in the CIA’s top spot, the President settled on Tenet, who had served as Deutch’s deputy and before that as Boren’s top aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Ironically, Tenet oversaw Boren’s half-hearted confirmation review of Gates in 1991. From the start, that investigation was limited by Boren’s commitment to Gates’s confirmation. Boren accepted Gate’s excuses about his less-than-candid Iran-Contra testimony.

The chairman also failed to pursue allegations linking Gates to secret U.S.-arranged arms sales to Iraq in the 1980s and to the so-called “October Surprise” case in which Reagan’s campaign was alleged to have undermined President Carter’s attempts to free 52 U.S. hostages held in Iran in 1980.

The failure to vet Gates came back to haunt Tenet as the policies and personnel pushed by Gates continued to dominate the CIA’s analytical division, as CIA morale sagged further and its reputation as an intelligence agency deteriorated more.

Because the Boren-Tenet inquiry gave Gates a pass on the “politicization” charges, along with almost everything else, the intellectual corruption of the Casey-Gates era at CIA still was not widely understood. With no recognition of the rot, Tenet has no mandate to take the radical steps needed to solve the problem.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

1 comment for “CIA at 50, Lost in the ‘Politicization’ Swamp

  1. richard campbell
    March 12, 2015 at 17:42

    Did this have anything to do with it?

    Large-scale OIG complaint filed against the IC.

    Take care.

    Joe C.

Comments are closed.