Rupert Cornwell: Has Donald Rumsfeld met his match?

One way and another, Americans don't seem very good at spying
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The starting point in any discussion of US intelligence as a new director takes the helm of the CIA is one simple fact. The current system is a dysfunctional mess. Almost by definition, it is the disasters of an intelligence agency, not its successes, that make news. Even the CIA must have had some untrumpeted successes over the years. But they can be as nothing compared with its colossal public failures.

This is, after all, the organisation that until 1994 could not identify its own Aldrich Ames as the most devastating Soviet mole in its history, despite obvious clues stretching back almost a decade. The CIA, moreover, bears the prime responsibility for the failure to thwart the 9/11 conspiracy and for getting Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities so wrong - the two monumental intelligence failures of our times.

For all its electronic wizardry, the US has been hopeless at "humint", human intelligence or real, live spies on the ground, espionage's most precious commodity. One way and another, Americans do not seem to be very good at spying. But they don't have to be this bad.

Porter Goss, the former congressman who has been shown the door, is only the latest, though arguably the worst, of a string of mediocre CIA directors. In theory, he was a perfect choice, a former covert agent himself who then headed the House committee on intelligence. But in his 18 months in charge Mr Goss managed only to make a bad situation worse. He brought with him a praetorian guard of congressional staffers who so alienated senior officers that many of them left, draining the CIA of some of its best and brightest. Morale among those who stayed was further undermined by the new director's obsession with leaks, and his proclaimed determination to bring to heel an agency regarded- absurdly - by the White House as a nest of liberal dissidents.

Michael Hayden, the air force general whom President Bush has nominated to succeed Mr Goss, ought to be a vast improvement. He has 30 years' experience in intelligence, most recently as head of the super-secret National Security Agency, specialising in electronic surveillance, and deputy to John Negroponte, who in 2005 was installed in the new post of director of national intelligence (DNI), to take charge of the entire US intelligence community.

As such he will have the trust of Mr Negroponte and, even more important, of Mr Bush himself. He is likely to be quickly confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate - even though there will be a fuss over General Hayden's role, as NSA director, in the warrant-less domestic eavesdropping whose revelation last year caused uproar on Capitol Hill. But the basic problem with US intelligence as presently structured is another matter.

There is an elephant in the room, whose name is Donald Rumsfeld. America's "intelligence community" is a bureaucratic labyrinth, comprising no fewer than 15 agencies, scattered across the CIA, the State Department, the FBI, the sprawling post 9/11 Department of Homeland Security - and most important, the Pentagon.

The CIA itself consumes only a 10th or so of the estimated $40bn the US spends each year on intelligence. The lion's share goes to the NSA, controlled by the Pentagon. Add to that the Defence Department's own separate intelligence services, and you realise that Mr Rumsfeld still largely calls the shots.

When the DNI was created last year, the Defence Secretary managed to preserve his empire. Before that, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and earlier, the history of US intelligence consisted of bitter turf wars between the Pentagon and the CIA. Given Henry Kissinger's reluctantly admiring comment three decades ago, that his Ford administration contemporary and rival Mr Rumsfeld was a "black belt" in bureaucratic combat, there was only likely to be one winner of that struggle.

Until this conflict is resolved, no shuffling of the bureaucratic chairs between the DNI and the CIA will make the system work. Just possibly, however, the Hayden appointment could provoke the long overdue showdown. He is admired for his independent-mindedness and refusal to be pressured.

Conceivably, the Negroponte/Hayden alliance might be able to force through the desperately needed streamlining of US intelligence, by removing layers of obstruction, and eliminating infamous practices like "stovepiping" - whereby a special pre-war Pentagon unit sent its own cherry-picked intelligence to Vice-President Cheney and other White House hawks, propelling the US into its ill-starred Iraq adventure.

And just maybe, in the redoubtable person of Michael Hayden, even Donald Rumsfeld may have met his match.