The position of director of central intelligence had a long history of scandal well before David Petraeus’s resignation. The DCI position is also not nearly as powerful as it once was. But it’s still a critical job and President Obama needs to pick the right successor to the war hero who resigned.
Many DCIs have left under a shadow. Allen Dulles, who was in command of the agency when it put the shah back in power in Iran, left after the disastrous Bay of Pigs debacle. JFK was furious at the CIA.
Bill Casey, probably the most powerful DCI ever and the only one who sat as a cabinet member, died before the investigation of his central role in the Iran-Contra affair shifted into high gear. It was fortunate timing for the ex-OSS man: he probably would have gone to jail over the scandal, which involved trading arms for hostages. Other directors have left after revelations about assassination plots, high-level foreign penetrations of the agency, terror plots missed, and missing weapons of mass destruction. The agency soldiers on; much of its veteran workforce is used to living in a controversy-prone outfit that often takes the hit for decisions made in the Oval Office.
Only one DCI really went on to bigger things: George H. W. Bush, who came to the job after the scandals discovered in the early 1970s. He didn’t stay long, but the headquarters complex now bears his name. No one who spent his career at the agency and worked as an intelligence officer for the CIA has been in charge since before Bush.
Dulles, Bush, and Casey not only ran the CIA, they were in charge of the entire intelligence community. They oversaw national intelligence estimates and signed off on the president’s daily brief every night before it was delivered to the top customer. Now the director of national intelligence does all that and is the DCI’s boss. And the real boss in the Obama administration is John Brennan, a career CIA officer, who works inside the White House as Obama’s counterterror czar. The president trusts him for good reason: he knows what he’s doing.
It may not be a good job to get promoted from; prone as it is to scandal and dishonor, it is not what it once was. But CIA director is still a key position. Like 007’s boss M, the DCI runs a global network of spies often in very dangerous places like Benghazi or Afghan forward operating bases. Mistakes bring home dead officers or bad intelligence or both. Today the job description includes running a drone war from Pakistan to Yemen—a conflict which is only likely to get bigger.
The DCI also oversees the best analysts in America who can find high-value targets and help bring them to justice. They also predict China’s future, the Euro’s fate, understand Saudi royal-family politics and monitor Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Often the DCI has to deliver very bad news to presidents—as Richard Helms did about Vietnam to LBJ. He said the war was going badly when the generals and diplomats all said it was OK.
That is the most vital requirement Obama needs to look for: a man or woman who will deliver truth to power no matter how unpopular the task. America needs a spy master who will tell his boss the truth he doesn’t want to hear, who won’t cherry pick the spy reports and who, if it is the only way to avert disaster, will resign instead of backing a flawed intelligence estimate. It’s a tall order.