Jed Babbin (JB): We’re speaking with my good friend, Rowan Scarborough, national security correspondent for the Washington Examiner and author of, Sabotage: America’s Enemies Within the CIA. released today by Regnery. Rowan, just last week we heard Michael Chertoff say that, he’s got a “gut feeling” that we’re going to be hit by the terrorists again this summer. Why doesn’t our intelligence community have something better than a gut feeling about that?
Rowan Scarborough (RS): We are really still paying for what happened to the CIA and the whole intelligence community in the 90s. For example, the CIA structure in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, was down to a handful of officers by the end of the 90s. The CIA closed scores of bases during the 90s, all over the world, including in Hamburg, Germany — the place where the 9/11 plot really began, and where radicalized Muslims were really cropping up in Europe.
Secondly, in the 90s we did not invest in technology to eavesdrop on these people, and in Sabotage I explain that the National Security Agency has been playing catch-up to try to come up with new technologies to match e-mail and the Internet. These two things burgeoned in the 90s, and they paralleled the rise of radical Islam. But NASA’s budget was going down, the CIA’s budget was going down. We just didn’t keep up.
JB: But all of that was fixed, wasn’t it? We had the 9/11 Commission, and all these wonderful intelligence reforms — Come on, Rowan, all this stuff is fixed, everything’ everything’s wonderful, right?
RS: You cannot fix a decade of neglect in just four or five years. And, as Sabotage proves, the “improvements” made on the recommendation of the 9-11 Commission didn’t fix the problems. In some cases, they made the problems worse by adding more unproductive bureaucracy.
JB: In Sabotage you make the case that the CIA is a rogue agency, not answerable to the president. That they’re not following his policies or trying to support him in this war — What in the world is going on? Is the CIA really that bad, really that rogue?
RS: Well, about three years ago John McCain became probably the first politician who declared the CIA a ‘rogue agency.’ And it is because inside the CIA, the bureaucracy at Langley had a priority of leaking and stopping Bush administration programs, rather than following the policy directives of the White House. And we’ve seen that in countless leaks about terrorist surveillance programs, the prisons where they were trying to interrogate top-ranking al Qaeda prisoners, in station reports from Baghdad. When Porter Goss took over the CIA in 2004, really trying to reform it, what happened? He died by a million leaks. It was a cut every day, until Porter Goss by 2006 actually was forced out.
JB: The picture you paint of the CIA is that it’s pretty much like a liberal college campus. Is that an apt analogy?
RS: That’s how people in the White House look at CIA headquarters in Langley. They look at it much the same way they look at some radical professors. But this is the hand that the White House has been dealt, and they have to deal with the CIA as it is. That’s why there was a lot of griping about it behind the scenes. The puzzle is that when President Bush is given the opportunity to criticize the CIA, he never does.
JB: What’s the basic problem with the CIA? They never seem to get the word until the media tells them about it. They were surprised when the Berlin Wall was built and just as surprised when it came down. They blew it on 9-11, on Iraq, and on pretty much everything else. Is it possible for us, given our national leadership, to have the intelligence agency we need to fight the war we’re in?
RS: In some cases, they were not very good reporters. After all, that is what the clandestine service is in many ways, reporters based in a country trying to get ‘scoops’ on what happens next. But the service has been dominated by careerism, touching all the bases, instead of staying in one place for a while to develop sources and experience.
JB: The Wilson-Plame matter. You focus on that as one piece of evidence about CIA operating against the Bush administration instead of part of it We have endured a three-year media spectacular surrounding the leak of Plame’s identity, culminating in the commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence for perjury. Why do you think that that was essentially a set-up, an attack on the president by the CIA?
RS: The CIA was so suspicious, and so angry at the Bush administration’s policies, that it had no interest in doing a proper investigation of Niger. That’s what it boiled down to.
Look at Vice President Dick Cheney. There’s a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency that Saddam Hussein’s regime may have contacted Niger to buy some ‘yellowcake,’ which is low-level processed uranium, and is used to make bomb-grade uranium. This was not far-fetched, because Saddam had bought yellowcake from Niger before, and in fact the yellowcake was still in his country, supposedly under seal. So a request goes over from Dick Cheney’s office to the CIA, and what happens? How is it handled? Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson’s wife. It comes down to her division, the Counter-Proliferation Division, and she decides, ‘Let’s send my former-ambassador husband down to investigate.’ That’s what she decides. And she recommends him for the trip. He is not a trained intelligence investigator. He’s a former diplomat, who decides he will fly to Niger and just ask some questions and then return.
So the bureaucracy sends a former ambassador to Niger for one of the most important pre-war questions on Iraq, instead of a trained investigator. He is not asked to even sign a confidentiality agreement on not disclosing what he finds, which is extremely unusual. So off he goes to Niger, unbeknownst to Dick Cheney — who wanted the question answered –, unbeknownst to Tenet or his top people at headquarters.
After the 2003 State of the Union address, Wilson decides to leak his trip, breaking his own vow of confidentiality: Valerie Plame was sitting right next to him when he leaked it to Nick Christoff of the New York Times. She knew her role in getting him the trip. She wrote a memo recommending him. Spouses, in the CIA, are responsible for protecting the confidentiality of the covert status of their spouse. So, at that moment, the Wilsons were, in a sense, outing Valerie Plame, because they had to realize when this appeared in the New York Times, people are going to ask, “Who is this ambassador, and how did he get sent to Niger?”
And the answer was going to come back: his wife got him the trip. And that’s exactly what happened, because when that column appeared in the New York Times, the White House said “What? Who? Why?” and “When did this happen?” And they made an inquiry to the CIA, and the bureaucracy reported back: his wife got him the trip. And that is what spawned this scandal, not as some diabolical plot to get Wilson’s wife as punishment. It was just gossip. That’s how Joe Wilson got the trip.
JB: More recently we’ve seen at least evidence of some political machinations by the CIA at the top levels, even after George Tenet’s departure, we have now General Mike Hayden there. Tell me, what was the impetus for Michael Hayden to go to the Hill, and prepare the Democrat Chairman Henry Waxman for the Plame hearing? Did he prepare the Republicans as well? And if not, why not?
RS: It’s kind of sketchy who he talked to and who he didn’t. But what is clear is that Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, did not have any idea that Director Hayden was going to prepare these talking points on the Plame matter. Hayden did brief Chairman Silvestre Reyes on the Democrat side and didn’t brief Hoekstra. So that’s where the charge of favoritism came about.
What Hayden is trying to do is make points — political points, after these tumultuous years of the Tenet directorship, and one way he is doing this is cozying up to the powerful Democrats in the House and the Senate, and another way is he’s trying to cozy up to the bureaucracy so it doesn’t turn on him the way it turned on Porter Goss.
He’s done this by setting up sort of this free-feeling e-mail system where he can e-mail them and they can e-mail him with all their feelings and all his feelings back, kind of happy talk. And his objective is to settle down the bureaucracy so it doesn’t turn on him, and to stop them from leaking. He told Brian Lamb in a C-SPAN interview that one of of his major priorities when he came to Langley was to stop the CIA as a source. In other words, stop the leaks. So, people who defend the CIA by saying, “Oh, we don’t know where the leaks come from. They could come from anywhere.”
Well, we know where Hayden thinks they’re coming from, we know where Porter Goss thinks they’re coming from, because one of the first things he did as director was to go into the auditorium — the secure auditorium known as the ‘Bubble’ and to say, “Stop leaking.” And then he authorized an IG investigation to try to find out who was doing the leaking. And of course the bureaucracy paid him back big time.
JB: The bottom line is: the CIA is still broken, and from your book, Sabotage, I really believe the CIA is not functioning the way it must to protect us and help us win this war. What is it going to take to fix the CIA? Does Congress have to pretty much undo what they’ve done, and redo it?
RS: I’ve talked to a Green Beret who worked with the CIA over in Iraq, and he said, ‘the only way to fix the CIA is to send backhoes and bulldozers out to Langley, level it and build it all over again.’
He believes the bureaucracy is that poisoned, poisoned by left-wing politics, poisoned by self-interest. That’s not going to happen, of course. They’re now rebuilding the clandestine service. They have hired more people in the last two years than in the past 10. And it’s just going to take experience and a change in culture for the officers to realize that when they go to Saudi Arabia, or they go to North African country, they’ve got to stay there for a while, and they’ve got to develop sources, and know the place.
After all, the clandestine service is all about what? It’s scoops. We want scoops. We want new stuff — what is going on, so the information can be reported back to Langley where it can be digested and a president can make decisions. And they’re still not delivering those scoops. And it’s going to take, it’s going to take years more to get that experience level built up.
JB: In 2009, we will have a new president, the CIA apparently is not going to be much changed form what it is now. What is the next president going to be able to rely on to make decisions in the global War on Terror?
RS: I think for one thing the Democrats have learned their lesson and they’re not going to try to gut the CIA again. When I talked to Porter Goss about the Clinton years, when he was the House Intel chairman, he said he was struck by how the Clintonites just were not interested in building up the capability of the CIA. Whether the clandestine service could report really neat stuff about what the terrorists were doing did not interest them, until perhaps the late 90s, when they figured they had gone too far. Who ever is elected, Republican or Democrat, they are stuck with this fairly inexperienced clandestine service, and they’re going to have to rely on it for their information. Hopefully by then the NSA — and I talk in the book about how the NSA is trying to modernize and come up with new types of eavesdropping equipment — the NSA will be at a level where we know more about what these terror networks are doing by then.
JB: Rowan Scarborough, author of Sabotage. Thanks very much.