ABCs of the CIA: a to-do list for Porter Goss

Three former CIA heads give advice on how to run the agency, navigate Washington politics - and stay neutral.

TO: Porter Goss

FROM: Former Top Spymasters

RE: Advice on running the CIA

Mr. Goss:

If confirmed by the Senate to head the Central Intelligence agency, prepare to be disliked. You'll be "the skunk at the garden party," as James Woolsey, America's top spymaster from February 1993 to January 1995, puts it. Your assignment is to be a truth teller, the messenger with often unpleasant assessments to give the White House and Congress. Like most people, they usually want to hear what they want to hear, not necessarily what you have to say. In other words, no "stove-piping" or spinning.

And you're going to have plenty of work to do inside the Langley headquarters - boosting morale and building new capabilities. Here's some advice that may help along the way, from people who have been there before you:

1. Don't get caught up in politics. "You have to be absolutely willing, when all around you on the political side are saying, 'This is very, very unpleasant for us to hear,' you have to say, 'I'm sorry about that, let me say it again,' " says Mr. Woolsey.

And another thing while we're on the subject: Since you've spent much of the last 15 years skillfully playing the political game in the most political of cities, you must cut all partisan threads once you move across the river to Langley, Va. Otherwise, your information, your stock and trade, will be suspect.

This is how Stansfield Turner, head of the CIA from March 1977 through January 1981, puts it: "Do everything that you can, Porter, to assure people that you will not be swayed by partisan political concerns in the way you produce intelligence. We've had enough of that with the weapons of mass destruction and the Al Qaeda/Saddam link. The public is already skeptical of our intelligence. You've got to try to restore that confidence despite the handicap you have coming from a partisan political background."

2. Serve up the facts. The best way to do that is to "build trust with truth," says William Webster, who held the top intelligence job from May 1987 to August 1991. He even has a little crib code you can use to remember this. He calls it the "4 Cs," something he always required of his operatives when they testified before Congress: Be correct, candid, complete, and consistent. "The purpose was to get away from a reputation for perhaps being disingenuous or cute in an effort to protect sources and methods," he says.

"The better approach was to be straightforward in answering the question and work out the problems with Congress rather than playing games with it."

3. Know your place. Remember the intelligence community does not make policy. It simply provides timely and useful intelligence that policymakers judge for themselves.

"So the new director needs to know who he is, that he's not the shaper of policy but the informer of policy that others make," adds Webster. "Failure to do that undercuts the trust that's necessary to be effective."

4. Don't shy away from the phrase "I don't know." With the shadow of Al Qaeda hovering over every discussion about the nation's future, it's become particularly important that you're as comfortable telling people what you don't know as what you do know. Don't be afraid, under any circumstances, to change your mind. Being a flip-flopper is not a bad thing when new intelligence comes in overnight.

"You need to be continually ready to say: 'I told you yesterday that, 70/30, something is likely, but today I'm going to tell you that, 60/40, it may be the other way,' " counsels Woolsey. "You can't be ashamed to continually update what your judgment is."

5. Don't let other people pick your metaphors. For heaven's sake, don't get caught up with this whole nonsensical discussion about "connecting the dots." Woolsey calls it the "stupidest metaphor." "In a kid's book, you connect the dots. The dots have numbers. In intelligence, not only are not all of the dots there, but there are no numbers on them," he says. "The whole point is figuring out whether you're looking at a picture of a rhinoceros or a rutabaga. Often, you don't know the answer."

6. Your job doesn't require a crystal ball. Forget about trying to predict the future - it's impossible. This intelligence game is about risk assessment and scenario planning, about making sure that policymakers know the probability that something will happen, as well as the alternative scenario - even if the chances are small and, particularly, if the outcome would be "awful."

"Far too much of the time, people have gotten off into thinking [that] if the future was not predicted, it was a failure" of intelligence, says Woolsey. "But [trying to predict the future] is a recipe for perpetual failure."

7. Fight for your people. You're expected to take the reins of one of the world's largest intelligence agencies at a time of extraordinary challenge, and your job will be to reinvigorate it, restore morale and credibility. Don't be afraid to fight. At the same time you're working on rebuilding both the clandestine and analytical branches of the agency, your job will be a moving target in a political and bureaucratic reorganization. During that highly charged process, you need to ensure that whoever heads all of the nation's intelligence agencies has the authority to hire and fire, and control of the purse strings.

"I would advise you to push as hard as you can to get the president to accept the 9/11 commission almost in toto," says Turner. "At this stage, the president has endorsed a director of national intelligence with no power, and [you] should try to correct that and get the authority over budgets, the authority for setting priorities for collecting and analyzing, the authority to hire and fire the heads of the collecting agencies, and the authority to require the dissemination of intelligence between agencies. If the director doesn't have those four authorities, he's going to be a eunuch."

And, finally, one last piece of advice. "What people want to know about any incoming director of central intelligence is that he's going to call it straight, no matter what," says Woolsey. "You owe that pledge in the confirmation hearings."

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