A Question of Competence

October 17, 1994

Perhaps we've read too many John le Carre spy novels, but we thought that just about the worst thing that could happen to an intelligence agency is having a senior officer turn traitor and feed vital information to the enemy. Not to mention uncloaking agents that the other side promptly executed. At the Central Intelligence Agency, it seems, snitching on a colleague is an even greater sin. Ignoring clear warnings that Aldrich Ames was a traitor is treated at the CIA as a bureaucratic stumble to be punished by early retirement at a generous pension. And the reassurance that colleagues, at least, are more ready to thumb their noses at the boss than join in his criticism of them.

But this is not a subject to be treated with flippancy. It was bad enough that R. James Woolsey, the CIA director, let off four senior officers who had done nothing to follow up evidence Ames was a double agent with reprimands and early retirement. Now it is revealed in the New York Times that two of Mr. Woolsey's principal subordinates gave an award to one of the four reprimanded officers the very next day -- without so much as a word to Mr. Woolsey.

If this is not a picture of an agency out of control, it is too close for comfort when the agency is this country's principal barrier against surprises from abroad. Mr. Woolsey has conceded that the CIA's culture is hostile to serious investigations of its own people. In part this may be an over-reaction to the mole-hunting obsession that hamstrung the CIA for 20 years at the height of the Cold War. More likely it is a byproduct of the old boy's club that has dominated the agency since it evolved from the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services, known to its detractors as Oh, So Social). That fraternity-like image is reinforced by the contrast between the treatment of Ames and the CIA's harassment of a female senior officer whose principal sin seems to have been greater competence than some of her male colleagues. (And who was one of the CIA officers who tried unsuccessfully to blow the whistle on Ames.)

Some legislators question whether this country needs an intelligence agency like the CIA any longer. The more immediate issue is whether the CIA is a coherent organization capable of carrying out any mission, whatever it is eventually deemed to be. An agency headed by a director who punishes gross incompetence with wrist slaps, and whose ranking subordinates openly flaunt their insubordination, needs a thorough purging.

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