WASHINGTON - The resignations of two more senior CIA officials yesterday fueled debate in the intelligence community over whether the agency is tumbling into turmoil under new director Porter J. Goss or is taking painful but necessary steps toward fixing serious problems.
In the latest in a series of high-profile departures, the top officials in the CIA's clandestine service quit after clashing with one of Goss' senior aides.
Stephen R. Kappes, the deputy director for operations, and his deputy, Michael J. Sulick, each had served in the agency for 23 years. But both are leaving just weeks into Goss' tenure amid signs of increasing acrimony between the agency's old guard and what critics describe as an often abrasive new regime.
The departures alarmed agency veterans who say that morale is plummeting under Goss' stewardship and that the agency is increasingly in disarray while struggling to stay abreast of terrorist threats and the insurgency in Iraq.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed concern that the drain of talent and ensuing confusion could spin out of control.
"Goss must take immediate steps to stabilize the situation at the CIA," Rockefeller said in a written statement. "There is no doubt that changes needed to take place at the CIA However, the departure of highly respected and competent individuals at such a crucial time is a grave concern."
Even some critics of Goss said they were dismayed by the agency's reaction to the arrival of its first new director in more than seven years. They accused senior CIA officials of seeking to undermine Goss and thwart his efforts to reform an agency guilty of serious intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq.
These sources pointed in particular to damaging information that was leaked to the media about Goss' nominee for executive director of the agency, Michael Kostiw.
Kostiw withdrew from consideration for that job after the Washington Post reported that he had left the CIA decades earlier after being accused of shoplifting. Kostiw remains a senior adviser to Goss.
Recent years have been a litany of "how screwed up the CIA is, and somebody goes in to change things and suddenly it's the end of the world," said a longtime Goss associate who has spoken with the director's senior aides in recent weeks.
Kappes and other senior officers "completely cold-shouldered Porter Goss when he came in," said the former government official who asked not to be identified.
Now that President Bush has been re-elected and it is clear Goss will not be a lame duck at Langley, "the entrenched desk jockeys at the CIA - and the directorate of operations in particular - are going crazy," the ex-official said.
Some CIA critics argue that still more departures are necessary to bring to heel an agency that many Republicans accuse of seeking to sandbag Bush during the recent presidential campaign by leaking information critical of the decision to invade Iraq.
The agency's deputy director, John E. McLaughlin, announced his plans to retire Friday, and the CIA's former executive director, A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, was forced out shortly after Goss arrived.
Another senior official, Michael Scheuer - formerly chief of the agency's Osama bin Laden unit, who wrote a book critical of the agency's terrorism response - quit last week; his departure apparently was unrelated to the new regime.
Goss did not address the turmoil at the agency in a written statement late yesterday, saying only that Kappes and Sulick had "honorably served their nation and this agency with distinction for many years."
Goss also indicated that a new head of the directorate of operations already had been selected. A U.S. intelligence official said Goss had chosen the current head of the CIA's counterterrorism center. The agency asked that the official's name not be published because he remains under cover.
Before arriving at the CIA in September, Goss was critical of the clandestine service, calling it "dysfunctional" and vowing to overhaul it by thinning management and bureaucratic ranks at agency headquarters to bolster the number of operatives working overseas.
A former congressional aide familiar with Goss' plans said the CIA director would like to reverse a current ratio in which roughly one-third of those who work in the clandestine service are overseas, while two-thirds are stationed at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.