ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Guarding Turf

As Defense secretary, will Robert Gates put the CIA back on track?

Among the many management challenges that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has inherited-besides the Iraq war-is what to do about his predecessor's predilection for turf poaching. Under Donald Rumsfeld, Special Operations forces and defense components stepped up their intelligence efforts, particularly through covert actions abroad aimed at influencing political, economic or military conditions. Those operations traditionally have been the domain of the CIA-the master spy agency Gates used to run. But under the global war on terror, the Pentagon is believed to have conducted covert actions in Middle Eastern countries that the CIA apparently was unwilling or unable to do. Rumsfeld also established internal analysis units to check or contradict the CIA's work on Iraqi weapons programs. All this threw the intelligence bureaucracy out of kilter. The question now is, will Gates-a career CIA man-restore the balance.

There are broad policy implications in play, especially since covert actions require presidential authorization and the notification of certain members of Congress. But intelligence management issues also loom large. With the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA's stature was diminished. Not only was its chief stripped of his second hat-director of central intelligence-but also of what little power he had to check the Defense secretary, who controls more than 80 percent of the intelligence budget and is one of the most powerful figures in the intelligence community. When Rumsfeld moved the Pentagon further into covert action territory and intelligence analysis, it was seen as a body blow to the CIA.

It seems logical that Gates, who was at the agency for more than 25 years and was the only director to rise from the ranks of entry-level employee, might seek to restore some of its management muscle. But don't be so sure.

"It's misleading to think of Robert Gates as a 'CIA man,' particularly if that is taken to imply any lasting solicitousness for the agency and its turf," says Paul R. Pillar, a 28-year agency veteran. "The CIA was part of the path of his rise to other things, but he surely will be much more concerned about his power and prerogatives in his position as secretary of Defense." As for covert and other actions, Pillar, now a visiting professor at Georgetown University, says, "I do not expect that he will try to expand DoD's intelligence activities even more than what Rumsfeld . . . did, but neither do I expect a rollback."

Another former CIA official who worked for Gates concurs. "Bob Gates now owns 85 percent of the intelligence community," the former official says, referring to the budget. "He's now more of a 'director of central intelligence' than when he was the director of central intelligence."

This former official also says that under the CIA's leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks, "There were things the intelligence community wasn't getting done that people felt needed to get done," particularly in the realm of covert action. "By and large, the community fell back on former military guys" for expertise.

Gates so far has steered a diplomatic course. During his swift confirmation hearing in December, he offered, "There are always huge bureaucratic interests in disputes among agencies-sort of the 'Who's in charge?' question. And one of the things that I learned a long time ago is . . . to throw away the organizational chart, that it's personal relationships that matter." But surveying his long career in government, Gates added, "I also think I learned a thing or two about bureaucratic infighting myself. I don't think I come to this as a particularly naive person in how to get things done in this city."

As he settles in at the Pentagon, don't expect Gates to bow down to any intelligence hierarchies - Rumsfeld's or the CIA's.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook