Through no fault of his own, President Obama is about to appoint his third director of the Central Intelligence Agency in less than four years. That is no way to run espionage. We need consistency and a 10-year, one-term-only, apolitical director akin to the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The C.I.A. has two crucial jobs, collecting and analyzing information on national security issues, and conducting covert, often paramilitary, operations abroad. The agency has a long history of doing both, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
In the 1960s the agency ran enormous covert operations in Indochina with its own air force and a systematic campaign to kill Viet Cong cadre (the Phoenix program). At the same time its analysts generally told the White House that America was losing the war. Director Richard Helms delivered truth to power because he enjoyed the confidence of the president and was seen as an objective truth teller.
Ronald Reagan introduced politics into the director’s job when he appointed his campaign manager, Bill Casey, to be director in 1981. Casey over saw the agency’s most decisive covert action program ever, the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan by an American-Pakistani-Saudi intelligence alliance. But his term at the top ended in arms for hostages and Iran-contra. George Bush and Dick Cheney pushed for the Iraq weapons of mass destruction estimate they wanted and that ended in a quagmire. More recently four of the last five director’s have prematurely proclaimed the demise of Al Qaeda.
The best way to ensure the intelligence process can both produce the best analysis possible, free from political and policy influence, and that covert operations are smart and legal is to ensure the director is an independent actor not subject to political pressure. Making the job a 10-year appointment, which will cross the lines of elections, offers a way to reduce the risk of politicization.
The director would still be subject to Senate approval and still report to the president via the director of National Intelligence so checks and balances would be kept appropriately rigorous. But he or she (and we are over due for a female spy master) should be an independent actor providing the White House, Congress and the nation the best intelligence possible.