It's a little like yelling an obscenity at a wedding. In the etiquette of Washington, it has always been an unwritten rule that members of the CIA don't publicly criticize the people they work for - namely the US government.
From the agency's inception some 50 years ago, the mantra of top officials in particular has been to provide "hard" information - estimates and analyses - not public opinions about their bosses' policies or veracity.
Now a senior CIA official is violating the trench-coat oath - and roiling already sensitive relations between the White House and the nation's top spy agency. It comes at a time of major reform of the nation's intelligence apparatus.
Mike Scheuer, a 22-year veteran who works in the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and is a former head of its Osama bin Laden unit, is criticizing the Bush administration for going to war in Iraq and for the way it has conducted the war on terror in general. And he's doing it very publicly.
Mr. Scheuer, who says he will leave his job today after holding "cordial" talks with his superiors on Wednesday, has been granting interviews to members of the media for days - and will appear Sunday night on CBS's "60 Minutes."
"I have concluded that there has not been adequate national debate over the nature of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and the forces he leads and inspires, and the nature and dimensions of the intelligence reform needed to address that threat," Scheuer said yesterday. He hopes to produce "a more substantive debate."
In many respects, his mini-revolt is just the most visible sign of a tension that has existed between the White House and the CIA almost since 9/11. As the agency has been censured for its failures leading up to the Sept. 11, and for incorrect estimates about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, agency members have circulated information defending their intelligence reporting and criticizing the Bush administration for going to war in Iraq and diverting attention from Osama bin Laden. Most of the missives have been anonymous leaks.
Never before, say government officials and outside experts, have relations between the CIA and the administration been so contentious. And never, they say, has the agency so publicly crossed the line to involve itself in policy debate. A Wall Street Journal editorial went so far as to call the agency's leaks and criticisms an "insurgency."
The agency was already in tumult. In the wake of numerous investigations and fault-finding charges, former CIA director George Tenet resigned this past summer, as did James Pavitt, the man who ran the agency's day-to-day counterterrorism operations. Now, Congress is debating the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. It's not yet clear to what extent reforms - such as appointing an über director with supervisory and budgetary control over the entire intelligence community, or creating a national counterterrorism center - will be implemented. But the agency is likely to lose much of the power and prestige it has garnered over the past 50 years.
"You can't be a member of the CIA and read that as anything but the status and power of the agency is going to decline," says Jim Walsh, an expert on security at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "I think it's understandable that some people may be sick and tired of this or pretty darned mad."
That basically sums up Scheuer's take on events within the intelligence community and the administration's policies. He has published two books in the past 2-1/2 years, "Through Our Enemies Eyes," and "Imperial Hubris," under "Anonymous." The agency had to clear the books for classified information and potential mentions of sources and methods, but couldn't prevent him from exercising his First Amendment right, agency officials say. The agency also permitted Scheuer to grant media interviews about the subjects of his books.
The first book was an in-depth look at Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, and was very well received by experts on terrorism as well as policymakers . But his second, best-selling book released this past July, "Imperial Hubris," was nothing less than an indictment of the administration's war on terror. He criticized the administration for not immediately responding against bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks.
And he further wrote that the war in Iraq was "an avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat but whose defeat did offer economic advantages."
Even Robert Baer, a retired CIA operative who has written two books that are at least somewhat critical of government positions, says he thinks Scheuer's criticisms went beyond the acceptable. "The CIA should not be in a hostile position to the president," Mr. Baer says. "And the "Imperial Hubris" book had to look that way to the White House."
But the interviews in particular have rankled government officials. Scheuer was again permitted to talk "anonymously" with the media after his latest book. But he apparently went beyond what the CIA thought he would, and agency officials squelched his speaking engagements.
The interviews he did before being reined in, however, have continued to appear, including in Vanity Fair (November) and The Atlantic Monthly (December). The Atlantic article excerpts a letter that Scheuer sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee in early September. In it, he enumerates 10 instances since 1996 in which "the decisions of senior intelligence community bureaucrats ... have been at the core of our failure against Bin Laden." Scheuer also decided, without agency approval, that he would grant interviews about the Atlantic Monthly article.
"I've presented this information to two Investigator General studies before 9/11 and to two IG [Inspector General] studies inside our building after 9/11," Scheuer said in a telephone interview. "I've testified before the 9/11 commission and the Shelby-Goss [congressional] commissions. So I've exhausted all the internal mechanisms available to an agency officer ... but I think to the average American, this is important."
It's unknown how the CIA will handle the criticisms. Some say it will likely try to work out an arrangement that would require him to curtail his critiques. Others say the agency may sue to set an example. For now, the agency refuses to comment.
"Some people will say he is crazy to publicly say these things," says Charles Battaglia, former staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee. "But others will say he's acting on the courage of his convictions."