CIA Post Is Tough Ticket

"It will take us another five years of work to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs. There is a creative, innovative strategy to get us there that requires sustained commitment and funding... The transformation is well under way, but our investments in capability must be sustained." - Tenet, pictured, in testimony April 14, 2004
The CIA on Monday entered a new era, with someone other than George Tenet in charge for the first time in seven years.

Meanwhile, a highly critical report on Iraq intelligence was on everyone's minds, the findings of the Sept. 11 commission were on the way and the threat of a major terrorist attack sometime this summer was in the air.

The list of challenges facing the intelligence agency underline the debate over whether President Bush should nominate a permanent CIA director quickly, or wait until after the election.

The challenges also illustrate the difficult job awaiting whoever ultimately takes the CIA's reins. Making the post an even tougher sell is the fact that taking the job before the election means running the risk of being ousted if John Kerry wins.

Additional uncertainty surrounds the possibility of a wholesale restructuring of how U.S. intelligence works, through which the duties of the CIA director may change substantially.

Tenet left office Sunday after announcing in early June that he was resigning for personal reasons. That leaves Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, in charge as acting CIA director until a new appointment is made.

A senior administration official said in early July an announcement could happen soon, but a White House spokeswoman gave no indication Sunday as to specifically when.

"Acting director McLaughlin is a strong and capable leader," spokeswoman Erin Healy said. "The president will make a decision on a new CIA director in due course."

Appearing on Sunday television news shows, senators leading the intelligence committee urged Mr. Bush not to delay, saying the country couldn't wait until after the November election given the current terrorist threat. Their comments came two days after the panel concluded the CIA provided unfounded assessments of the threat posed by Iraq with weapons of mass destruction.

"An acting director for the next six or seven months, during such a dangerous period for the United States, with all of these talks about attacks on the United States, is not acceptable," said West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the committee's top Democrat.

The chairman, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican, said McLaughlin's ability to lead is limited as acting director even though he is "very skilled" and brings a lot of experience to the job.

"I hope the administration will send somebody up," Roberts said. "It will have to be an extraordinary nominee. If that's the case, we will go full time into the hearings to get him or her confirmed."

Committee members discussed several possible nominees: Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage; former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, a democrat; House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, a Florida Republican; and former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a member of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

Federal officials said last week that intelligence from militant-linked Web sites and elsewhere indicated al Qaeda wants to attack the United States to disrupt the upcoming elections.

The government is putting in place elaborate security plans for the political conventions this summer in Boston and New York. Also, officials are considering how to secure polling places in November. Such security measures require a strengthened CIA, Rockefeller said.

"I think that John McLaughlin is trying to make some changes, but making changes in the CIA after a 50-year history of Cold War operations and mentality is a very tough thing to bring about," he said. "We have to do a better job."

Without mentioning names, Rockefeller said there were four or five candidates who could get quick bipartisan support if Mr. Bush were to nominate them now. When pressed, however, Rockefeller said he did not believe Goss was one of them.

"I don't think that anybody who should be up for consideration should have a political background," he said. But Roberts quickly followed: "I don't know of anybody in Washington that doesn't have a political background of some sort."

The senators also clashed over whether administration officials had pressured intelligence analysts to reach predetermined conclusions on the Iraq threat.

The White House's role will be examined in a second phase of the committee's investigation, which probably will not be finished until after the election.

Rockefeller said the administration should be held partly accountable for what he considered to be an undue interest in invading Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"In the meantime, we have created, therefore, the lowest standing of the United States in our history around the world; more people trained and being trained for probably a generation or so to come to hate us and to try and hurt us abroad and here in the homeland," the Democrat said.

Roberts said the White House should not be blamed for asking tough questions of analysts and making public statements such as those referring to a "mushroom cloud" — which is produced after a nuclear explosion — in describing the Iraqi threat.

"The information that was provided to the president and to the Congress — that led to the same kind of assertive comments that the same critics are now blaming the president for — was flawed," he said.

The Sept. 11 panel is due to issue its final report later this month. In preliminary findings, the panel's staff faulted the CIA for never producing an authoritative summary of al Qaeda's involvement in terrorist attacks prior to Sept. 11, nor fully appreciating Osama bin Laden's role as the leader of a growing extremist movement.

Even though al Qaeda had been formed in 1988 after the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan, the CIA didn't recognize it as an organization until 1999, the report said.