Former Top CIA Official Says Agency Can be Revived Through Leadership, Focus

A former deputy director of the CIA, Richard J. Kerr, says the agency needs a strong leader who can restore its role as the leading source of intelligence analysis. Kerr says the new head of the CIA must clarify the relationship with the new director of national intelligence and the military.

May 19, 2006

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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The U.S. Senate is reviewing the candidacy of Gen. Michael V. Hayden to direct the Central Intelligence Agency during one of the most turbulent periods in the agency’s 60-year history. Hayden has faced heavy scrutiny over his role directing warrantless surveillance of U.S. phone calls abroad during his time heading the National Security Agency. Richard J. Kerr, a former deputy director of the CIA, says more important than the NSA activities is the necessity to bring strong leadership to the CIA and restore its place as the government’s most important intelligence-analysis service.
Kerr, who conducted an independent—and critical—review of the agency’s intelligence analysis ahead of the Iraq war, said the CIA’s role in assisting policymakers needs to be strengthened. "The agency has been under a lot of stress," says Kerr, "not just because of 9/11 or the Iraq WMD issue, but because of a rather significantly changing world where the agency’s role is kind of being redefined."

Hayden faced strong questioning in the Senate about his role in overseeing warrantless surveillance at NSA. Can someone so intimately involved in the surveillance program restore trust in the credibility of CIA?

I don’t find the program a particular problem. I mean, it is from a public relations point of view but from a national security point of view, I would say it’s a plus for him not a minus [from the standpoint of] people who are looking at what’s important at this point in time to be doing and how to deal with the issue of terrorism. So I don’t think that would be a negative, at least from those interested in national security in a very fundamental way.

Let’s talk about the public relations aspect you mention. Is that the very nature of the job, you’re going to have a problem with PR?

Let’s face it, the CIA is involved in illegal activities overseas, that’s what it does. It’s its business to collect intelligence. To do that involves a lot of activities that run contrary to laws in foreign countries. The objective is to protect U.S. national security so I think he will find a lot of issues related to that particular kind of problem that a director of central intelligence faces. It’s not a position where you particularly have a lot of popularity. I mean, you have a lot of people who are going to argue that [the agency] does things that it should not do, that are contrary to the tradition and openness of the United States. So it’s an uphill battle in terms of the public relations issue, but the real question is: Can he be an effective leader of the organization?

It’s been said that you need five to seven years to get an agent up and running on some of these issues whether it’s the ’HumInt’ [Human Intelligence] side or the analysis side. How much damage has there been to the agency in terms of flight of qualified people in the last few years for morale or other reasons?

I think a number very qualified, particularly midlevel, upper-level, experienced people have left. I think it takes time. I look upon intelligence as a career, as a profession, and like any profession it takes time to learn the trade and you just can’t bring people in and expect them to pick it up and have either knowledge about the collection process, or knowledge of a particular country or area without time. And unfortunately, the agency has been under a lot of stress, not just because of 9/11 or the Iraq WMD issue, but because of a rather significantly changing world where the agency’s role is kind of being redefined and the role of the military, in my view, is still uncertain related to intelligence. It’s a stressful period, people with options-and unfortunately those are often the good people-exercise their options.

There has been what they’re calling in the State Department ’transformational diplomacy.’ Is there transformational intelligence work going on that truly meets what our real areas of challenge are, the asymmetric threats and so forth?

I would say first of all, the reorganization in my view is not a disaster, [although] it was very poorly thought through. Rather than centralized and have one person responsible, they put out a whole bunch of people in the line for responsibility. I think it’s going to have to be changed, but in the meantime, people are going to have to live with it and I think they are adjusting reasonably well to the new problems. Again, the intelligence organizations understood rather well the changing world, the difference between the Cold War and today’s world, and adjusted to it as best they could. But that adjustment is rather significant in terms of how you do it, how you organize yourself to do it, and what skills you need. It takes a while and, unfortunately with today’s organization, I’m not sure we’ve helped the problem. We’ve confused the intelligence community a good deal.

Do you think General Hayden has the ability to get things more organized, more coherent at the CIA, perhaps in building the relationship with [director of national intelligence] John Negroponte?

He’s obviously had experience, he’s run a complex organization and I think that’s important. I think to move people in to run the CIA or any other organization who have not had experience with complex organizations or, if you will, different cultures, then you are asking for a lot of trouble. I think with his experience he should know the substantive issues, certainly understand the issue of [intelligence] collection. I think it becomes a question of leadership, how people perceive you, how you are seen by the organization, to what degree you’re seen as not only a person that’s going to change the organization positively but also as a person who will protect the organization. I would put a lot of emphasis on that. The CIA is a very vulnerable organization. It very seldom has successes that it can trumpet: It doesn’t capture any hills, or win any battles that are obvious, and sometimes the things it does best-the successes-are ascribed to others. So it is an organization that can be quite insecure and a little worried about where it stands and how it is perceived, so I think leadership becomes absolutely the key to it.

The period you served [in the CIA] was the heart of the Cold War right up to its end. Do you think the agency gets enough credit for some of the successes during that period?

Absolutely not. People look at the end of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Velvet Revolution in Eastern Europe as, well, "those were easy things to do." They weren’t. They were very complicated. The fact [that] we did not have a bloody end to the Cold War is an amazing thing if you think about it, and yet Americans generally, and generally the press, quite honestly says, "We got through that," but they don’t give the policymakers nor intelligence near enough credit for that conflict situation.

From your knowledge about the way these things go, do you see any problem in the Senate confirmation of General Hayden from the senate?

I don’t know. I think anybody who would come up before confirmation for that job at this point in time would find both on the left and the right, both the Democrats and the Republicans, raising all kinds of issues of concern. But what the final announcement is, and how serious is it, I don’t know.

There was a Republican senator, Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who expressed pique [in the May 18 committee hearing] about not being brought up to speed on the [surveillance] of calls. That kind of thing doesn’t seem to sit well with the legislative branch-when they are not seen in the loop when they are supposed to be.

I think it sounds to me like they were pretty well briefed; both the House Select Committee and the Senate Select Committee on [intelligence] activities. They’re always in this position of "we don’t know enough. You don’t tell us enough," because in some ways they are in a fairly vulnerable position. They’re supposed to represent the rest of the Senate as select members, so they feel themselves very vulnerable and quite often in my experience they tend to forget what they were told earlier, or at least underplay it significantly.

I think there are more serious issues in terms of asking questions about 9/11 and WMD in Iraq. Those are serious issues that obviously the general had some involvement in.

What do you see as the most important area the CIA needs to focus on coming through this process?

I think working out some practical relationship between the director of national intelligence and the director of central intelligence, at least temporarily, because I think sooner or later that will be reorganized and there will be a change in it. I think that’s an important issue. I think the relationship with defense becomes very important. Defense is a big elephant in this process, and it is increasingly looking as an organization that does its own intelligence, that makes its own judgments about intelligence independent of an independent organization like the CIA.

I guess if I were to put one or two things down that I thought are most important, it seems to me that the executive and the defense department need to reach a point where they involve the independent civilian—despite the fact that Hayden is a military person, [the CIA] is still a civilian organization that reports to the president, it doesn’t report through the military chain—not to ignore it and to involve it in any kind of policy or military planning. I think if you look at Iraq, it seems to me that one of the real shortcomings was that the CIA wasn’t a major player in the development of some of the ideas, or some of the thoughts around Iraq once the war was over. So I think that it needs to be part, and an intimate part, and an important part, of the policy process. Not just a group of people that provide information on a regular basis, helpful information on a regular basis.

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