Spies at (turf) war

May 09, 2006

Perhaps most discouraging about the latest tumult at the CIA is that the nation's top intelligence agencies are still engaged in a debilitating battle over turf.

Porter J. Goss was ousted last week from his post as CIA chief in part because he demoralized the agency by putting political minions in charge of day-to-day operations while letting the Pentagon poach CIA functions. Meanwhile, President Bush's choice of a successor, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, is running into resistance on Capitol Hill from lawmakers who say his Air Force background would ensure even greater control of America's civilian spy apparatus by the military.

A more pressing issue should be General Hayden's role in creating the warrantless wiretap program as chief of the National Security Agency, and whether that shows he lacks appropriate respect for civil liberties that must be part of the equation in a democracy.

The general's Senate confirmation hearings will provide an excellent opportunity that shouldn't be missed for lawmakers to finally get the administration to bring Americans into the loop about violations of their privacy in the name of national security.

Turf battles are a waste of time if they don't settle central questions about policy.

General Hayden would come to the CIA post with some impressive qualifications, including the prospect of bucking up morale at the dispirited agency. He was popular with the career staff members during his six years at NSA, and took pains yesterday to assure CIA personnel he recognized that their achievements "are frequently underappreciated."

Troubling questions have been raised, though, about General Hayden's independence. His ability to resist pressure from Mr. Bush is more worrisome than the fears about his purported allegiance to the Pentagon.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks caught the nation by surprise, the first response was to create the Department of Homeland Security, which has proved an unwieldy mishmash. All 15 scattered intelligence agencies were later allied under the newly created post of director of national intelligence.

Such upheaval was impossible without some human resistance. But it's long past time for these agencies to get focused on their mission of protecting the nation.

To win confirmation, General Hayden should secure a truce in the turf wars and avoid becoming enmeshed in what some suspect will be another Bush effort to exploit national security fears for political gain. With Iraq and energy costs driving the president's poll ratings to record lows, he may be looking for a change of subject before the November elections. A tall order for the general, perhaps. But no less than Americans have a right to expect.

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