WASHINGTON — A public war between a president and his intelligence arm is never good news. But with the war against the insurgency in Iraq at a critical juncture, and Osama bin Laden making his ominous presence known, it is perhaps the worst of times for the Bush administration and its spies to be at odds.
Still, government officials and outside experts say, the long-simmering tensions between the White House and CIA are erupting into an unseemly period of recriminations and resignations.
Most of the team that led CIA covert operations overseas have left government service, several after former Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida - also a former CIA case officer - took the helm seven weeks ago with a promise to revamp the less-than-productive foreign spy program.
At the heart of the conflict is the way the reform process mandated by both the White House and Congress is being handled. Is the team Mr. Goss brought with him from his House Intelligence Committee employing the finesse necessary to continue operations while enhancing the spies' performance?
"If they want to make this thing work, they've got to convince these senior officials that change is a good thing and convince them to help," says Art Hulnick, a former senior intelligence official who lived through a similar situation between the CIA and Carter administration when then-CIA director Stansfield Turner was charged with reforming the spy program. "But if they do it by wielding a broad sword, cutting off the heads of people who can help them, then it will fail."
Former and current intelligence officials say they haven't seen this level of discontentment within the bowels of the agency for at least 25 years. And they worry what impact this may have on the United States' global war on terror.
On Monday, Stephen Kappes, deputy director of clandestine services, quit, as did associate deputy director of operations Michael Sulick. On Friday, the agency's No. 2, John McLaughlin, a 32-year veteran analyst and former acting director, resigned. And earlier this summer, director George Tenet left, followed by James Pavitt, the man who led the agency's day-to-day counterterrorism activities.
Mr. McLaughlin's retirement was not unexpected. But the departure of Mr. Kappes is considered a blow to the Goss team's reforms, and is reportedly the direct result of a clash with Patrick Murphy, Goss's chief of staff.
"The perception abroad is there is a lot of turmoil at senior levels," says Mike Scheuer, a senior counterterror official who left the agency this past Friday because he disagrees with the way the administration is handling the war on terror. "And the perception in the building [CIA headquarters] is that there are these kinds of failed agency officers returning to exact their revenge from people who've made it in the agency."
Both McLaughlin and Kappes were well-liked and respected among the workforce, Scheuer and other former and current intelligence officials say.
McLaughlin was "beloved," and Kappes was especially respected among the overseas workforce, Scheuer says. "He has a reputation for being a very straight shooter. He's a former Marine who's done a lot of hard things overseas - he's the first qualified Director of Operations in more than a decade."
But it isn't as if Goss hasn't implemented changes that also please agency employees. For one thing, he named "Dusty," a pseudonym because he's still under cover, as executive director. And Goss cancelled a pay-for-performance program that was almost universally disliked by employees.
Still, many of Goss's moves, especially those involving the staff he brought with him, rankle intelligence officials. Goss's first choice for the agency's third-highest position of executive director, for instance, was Michael Kostiw. Mr. Kostiw withdrew his name for the position after someone - apparently inside the agency - leaked to the press that Kostiw had been asked to leave the agency some 20 years earlier after a shoplifting incident. Moreover, Mr. Murphy is said to be particularly "abrasive and inconsiderate" in dealing with agency officials.
But revamping a mammoth bureaucracy - one that has been pronounced "dysfunctional" by government leaders - is not a simple task.
Mr. Hulnick, now a professor of international relations at Boston University, was an agency case officer when Mr. Turner arrived at the CIA in 1977. He says the situations are similar.
President Carter had charged Turner, director of the CIA from 1977 to 1981, with transforming the agency's poor performance, following exposures, such as torturing a Soviet defector and administering experimental drugs to Americans without their knowledge or consent, by the Church Committee's report and the Nixon-Watergate scandal.
"[Turner] brought staff in with him from the Navy, and didn't listen to our advice," Hulnick says. "We called it the Halloween massacre. He cut about 800 slots overseas. The rumor is of course that people got fired, but only 17 left the agency. Some retired, but most found other jobs in the agency."
Turner says he brought one staffer with him from the Navy, a man who basically managed his office. And that he was acting on the advice of a study that had been performed by the agency for the previous director, George Herbert Walker Bush.
But Turner says the reaction to his cleanup and Goss's are similar. "I came in and tried to clean that up, and [the staffers] came after me," Turner says. "And the leaks in this instance are indications of fierce opposition to anybody who criticizes them."
He goes on to say that it shouldn't be unexpected. The intelligence community has suffered huge blows: the failure to predict the 9/11 attacks, the incorrect estimate about Iraq's possession of mass destruction, and the several committee reports that have censured their performance.
"The leaks and this whole reaction to Goss is irresponsible in the midst of a war," Turner says. "But you've got to expect it - [CIA officers] are experts at disinformation; that is what they do for a living."
Other former CIA officers, like Robert Baer, who was highly critical of the way the agency's human intelligence activities were downgraded in the 1980s and '90s, is happy with what Goss is trying to do.
"He's trying to turn back the clock, reimpose the standards that are necessary to run the intelligence service," Mr. Baer says.