Leadership in the CIA

January 01, 1995

R. James Woolsey was the right man at the wrong time as director of central intelligence. His varied experience in national security issues and his analytic abilities would have stood him in good stead during the Cold War, when he might have been a more effective head of the nation's intelligence community than some of his predecessors. But it was his fate to take over the Central Intelligence Agency after the demise of the Soviet Union. The world the agency was responsible for studying and whose future actions it was expected to predict changed drastically, but the CIA did not.

Mr. Woolsey had a strong base of support in Congress which he frittered away by failing to understand the new circumstances. Even long-time admirers like the hawkish Sen. John Warner, R-Va., abandoned him. In a time of sharp budget cutting, he went over the administration's head to fight for more money. He might have won the battle if he could have presented a coherent plan to revamp the CIA for its post-Cold-War mission. Instead, he offered a series of quick fixes.

Worse, Mr. Woolsey botched the Aldrich Ames case. He was not responsible for this horrendous security leak, which occurred before he took over. But he failed to punish adequately the senior officers responsible for ignoring clear warnings over a period of years that Ames was a security risk.

President Clinton needs to move cautiously in picking a successor. He has now made two bad choices in top national security posts (remember Bobby Inman?) who had impressive credentials and initially strong support in Congress. The CIA job is one of the most demanding in Washington.

The challenge to the CIA now is more complex than when it had but one or two major threats to monitor. What the Kremlin was really up to was hard enough to divine, but the turmoil in nations and societies more alien to us is tougher still to evaluate. In an age when large nations no longer have a nuclear monopoly, the U.S. cannot afford to make the same sort of misjudgments in the Muslim crescent from Algeria to Afghanistan, or the formerly Soviet Asian states along Russia's southern border, as it did in the shah's Iran two decades ago.

Mr. Clinton needs a strong administrator, someone who can take command of an agency whose stock in trade is secrecy. Familiarity with intelligence work is important, for there is no time for on-the-job training. But above all, the new director must comprehend the new political realities, in Washington as well as around the globe.

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