CIA Cleanup

The firing last week of a CIA official for allegedly disclosing classified information to journalists should mark the beginning of an effort to clean house at an agency that has shown itself of late to be insular, ineffective and insubordinate.

Although the CIA’s intelligence failings have been well-documented in congressional reports and by the agency’s own inspector general, there have been no consequences. Porter Goss, who left Congress to head the agency in 2005, has made some improvements going forward but has chosen not to make anyone pay for past mistakes or outright transgressions.

Clearly, a culture of contempt for the current occupant of the White House has infected a number of people who work in the agency, some of whom have taken it on themselves to try to undermine the administration by leaking information to the press and unauthorized persons in Democratic circles on Capitol Hill.

Mary O. McCarthy, the official fired last week, may be the tip of the iceberg. McCarthy served at the National Security Council under President Clinton, a post she retained into the first year of the Bush administration.

McCarthy was no mere non-partisan intelligence expert, however. Both she and her husband gave large contributions to Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 — indeed, they gave the legal limit: $2,000 each to the candidate and $5,000 each to the Democratic Party. How many more are there — of either party — in the CIA ranks who have been similarly partisan?

Now, intelligence officials don’t give up their right to participate in the political process, but there is a big difference between merely voting and trying to influence the outcome of an election. It strikes me as unwise, even dangerous, to have members of the intelligence community actively involved in the latter.

Ever since the Watergate scandal, for example, attorneys general have stayed out of campaign activities for the administrations in which they worked, and so have most secretaries of state, and active duty members of the military are prohibited from engaging in campaign activities.

These are good rules and common practices. Do we really want the people who are charged with spying and keeping the nation’s secrets or fighting the country’s wars exercising major influence over who sits in the Oval Office? We’ve had a long tradition of separating our military and civilian functions. There has never been even an attempted military coup in our nation’s history, as there have been in many other democracies. And what are intelligence agencies except quasi-military outfits whose duty it is to protect the country?

If McCarthy actually did what she’s accused of doing — leaking classified information that she believed would be damaging to the administration — in addition to giving large sums to the president’s opponents, she was engaged in what amounts to an attempted, albeit non-violent, coup. Certainly it would have been viewed as such if conservative intelligence officers had done something similar during the Clinton years.

Ending partisan guerrilla warfare at the CIA won’t solve all the agency’s problems certainly, but it’s a start. The president, whether Republican or Democrat, must have an intelligence capability that is strictly non-partisan. It goes without saying that the CIA and all other intelligence agencies must be counted on to keep the nation’s secrets.

It is simply unacceptable for individuals to decide which secrets they think are important to keep and which they choose to share. Agents who have moral qualms about what they are doing should get out of the business, and those who violate the law by revealing secrets should be aggressively prosecuted.

It’s unclear at this point whether the Justice Department will pursue prosecuting McCarthy, but to ignore what appear to be flagrant violations of her oath of office and intelligence laws would send a very bad message to others at the agency. With federal prosecutors still pursuing leaks of far less damaging information in the Valerie Plame incident, it sets a troubling double standard not to prosecute McCarthy.