CIA chief notes gains, still faces hurdles

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Gen. Michael V. Hayden arrived at the CIA a year ago with a clear directive: Quell turmoil at the agency. By all accounts, he has done that. Now comes the harder part: building a post-9/11 spy agency.

In 2004, President Bush directed the CIA to expand the number of spies and analysts by 50 percent in response to a 9/11 Commission finding that the CIA needed to transform its spying capabilities.

Meeting the president's goal is going to take longer than originally anticipated. Hayden said it will take "a couple" more years than had been expected to satisfy Bush's directive, and a Senate intelligence aide familiar with the agency's latest planning estimates that by 2011, the CIA will be about three-fourths of the way to Bush's goal.

"We consciously ... slowed down" to hire additional support staff for the new cadre of spies, Hayden said during an interview in his seventh-floor office at the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters.

Wearing a light-blue, short-sleeved Air Force dress shirt with four stars on each shoulder, the 62-year-old CIA director reflected on a year in which he had to respond to frequent outside demands while prodding an angst-ridden agency to "get back to work."

The CIA Hayden inherited had been losing some of its most senior officers, who departed after disagreeing with his predecessor, Porter J. Goss. One of Hayden's first priorities was to stop the public criticism of the agency's leadership.

Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency, has also been forced to grapple with one of the agency's thorniest issues in recent decades: what to do with the secret jails that the CIA has been operating for the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

"We're the nation's intelligence agency, not the nation's jailer," Hayden said. "I went into that area with an awful lot of energy and worked it very, very hard so that we came up with a way ahead."

That work is not done. The Senate Intelligence Committee announced yesterday legislation urging Congress and the administration to re-evaluate the need for a separate CIA program.

At the same time, Hayden said, he was helping reshape U.S. strategy toward Iraq during a three-month marathon that had him "living down on Pennsylvania Avenue" in daily meetings with senior White House officials.

"This agency was as involved in creating that decision as you could possibly imagine," he said, referring to the president's new policy to increase the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad.

Bush's 2004 directive required the CIA to develop ways to measure its progress, but Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry, a Texas Republican on the House intelligence panel, said he is "frustrated, and I think a lot of people are frustrated, that we talk about the same deficiencies" every year.

"We put money into programs that are supposed to do something about it," Thornberry said, "but we can't tell if they are paying off or if they are getting the results we need."

Some lawmakers have expressed concern over what they regard as inadequate U.S. intelligence on Iran's weapons capabilities and its intentions.

Hayden defended the accuracy of the CIA's intelligence but said improvement is needed.

"It's better than a lot of people think," he said, but "it's not yet good enough, and we'll continue to work on that."

Asked whether a nuclear-armed Iran is inevitable, Hayden demurred.

"That's a very tough question. ... Our assessment right now is the Iranians are on the course to develop a nuclear weapon," he said.

The CIA estimates that it might take Iran three to eight years to achieve a nuclear weapon.

Hayden said a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat, not because the CIA expects Iran to use nuclear weapons but because a nuclear-armed Iran would become more powerful in the region.

Iran is supplying arms to the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, he said, a development that he called "quite surprising."

Iran's Shiite Muslim leaders have historically clashed with the Sunni Muslims who make up the Taliban, and U.S. officials conferred extensively with Iranian leaders after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on how to counter the Taliban threat.

NATO forces said this week that they have intercepted weapons thought to have come from Iran, and the U.S. government thinks Iran is trying to demonstrate that it can inflict serious casualties on the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The proliferation of nuclear material and weapons of mass destruction is another issue that has occupied Hayden's time. He called the overlap between terrorism and weapons proliferation "the devil's own nexus."

Hayden said it is time to get the CIA out of post-9/11 emergency mode and cope with the growth of an agency in which nearly half the work force has been hired in the past five years.

Hayden said the CIA is trying to hire people with critical cultural and linguistic knowledge, mask officers' identities more creatively and encourage spies to take greater risks in clandestine operations.

He said the CIA is on track to achieving the goal set by George Tenet, one of his predecessors, who called for creating "the kind of clandestine service the country needs" by 2009.

Congressional monitoring of the CIA has increased since the beginning of the year, when Democrats took control of the House and Senate. Hayden has been well-received on Capitol Hill, despite doubts about whether the agency is on schedule to transform its spying operations by the start of the next president's term in 2009.

"He's been very open in terms of the relationship that he and I have," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrt. "Problem areas that we have pointed out he has been very open and willing to address."

Top CIA officials have testified three dozen times this year, twice as many as in 2006. In addition, CIA officers have given hundreds of briefings to lawmakers and their staffs, Hayden said.

By referring to those numbers, Hayden said he was not "not complaining." Then he paused, chuckled and added, "Yet."

Hayden sharply differs with Congress over releasing a declassified version of the executive summary of the CIA inspector general's 2005 review of pre-9/11 intelligence failures.

A bill awaiting action in the Senate would compel the agency to make the executive summary public.

Hayden noted that his predecessor, Goss, made the original decision not to release the report.

"I see no reason to revisit the decision of my predecessor," he said, because "the cumulative effect" of the "archaeological expeditions" into intelligence failures discourages officers from taking risks.

He added, however, that "one has to consider what one might have to do if one is faced with the law."

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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