Press Box

Spy vs. Spy

The spooks play the press.

When Washington bureaucrats collide, the best seat in the house is often wherever you sit to read your daily newspaper. Bureaucrats tend to battle one another in the press, leaking and counter-leaking and counter-counter-leaking damaging information about one another.

The latest such rumble pits the CIA’s old guard against its new director, Porter J. Goss, appointed by President George W. Bush two months ago with orders to revamp the agency. Which side is wearing the white hats and which the black depends on which newspaper you read—or how you read it. If you’re a Bush supporter, you think Goss is the hero. You agree with him that the CIA is “dysfunctional,” incompetent, responsible for intelligence failures, and needs a shake-up. If you’re a Democrat, you believe the stories wafting out of the agency about Bush’s dark plans to further politicize it, to punish and purge its dissenting voices.

Such vehement claims and counter-claims are par for the Washington course. What makes the current drama so compelling, though, is that 1) it’s being fought on Page One; 2) spies are flinging their accusations from the safety of anonymity; and 3) the press has a stake in the outcome.

Coverage of the contest for the CIA’s soul has generally favored the CIA’s old guard over interloper Goss since he arrived at Langley. Why? Because the Rebel Alliance was talking to the press and the Empire wasn’t. Obviously, some rebels figured that Kerry was going to win, which meant they had nothing to lose by dissing Goss, who would be ousted by the new president in January. Goss probably calculated along the same lines: Why start a death match with the CIA bureaucracy until you know you know you’ve got enough time on the clock to finish it?

But after Bush won the election, the two sides seemed ready for the showdown. On Saturday, Nov. 13, the New York Timesand Washington Postreported the departure of the CIA’s No. 2 man, agency veteran John E. McLaughlin, citing anonymous CIA sources who blamed tensions wrought by Goss and his team. The next day, both the Post ( Goss Reportedly Rebuffed Senior Officials at CIA“) and the Times ( New Chief Sets Off Turmoil Within the C.I.A.“) ran stories in which several anonymous CIA officials crabbed at length about the professional rudeness of Goss and the four staffers he brought with him from Capitol Hill. The only defense of Goss I spotted in a major daily came in a column by David Brooks, a conservative, whose Nov. 13 Times column decried Bush’s “enemies” who occupy “certain offices of the Central Intelligence Agency” (“The C.I.A. Versus Bush“).

The rebels had several advantages in this war of words: They were already intimate with reporters from the national security beat; many of them understood the art of the leak; and none were above portraying themselves as victims of Bush’s political witch-hunt. If they were regular sources for Washington reporters, the rebels had every right to believe they would get a sympathetic hearing.

Emperor Goss, on the other hand, entered this game with a handicap. He disdains the press, as all Bushies do, and part of what he hates about the old guard is that they leak to the press. So, he’s not one to battle his bureaucratic foes by counter-leaking in the newspapers.

But that doesn’t mean Goss is above dispatching a proxy to fight for him. Press darling Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., changed the shape of the coverage by arguing the Empire’s point of view on the Sunday, Nov. 14, edition of ABC News’ This Week. “This agency needs to be reformed,” McCain said. “[Goss] is being savaged by these people that want the status quo. And the status quo is not satisfactory.” The senator’s comments were picked up by the Los Angles Times on Monday, Nov. 15 (“C.I.A. Tumult Causes Worry in Congress“). Two more old-guard CIA officials resigned on Monday to protest Goss’ uncouth manner, and this time the news accounts in the Nov. 16 Postand New York Timesincluded McCain’s head-cracking comments.

From the Post:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said yesterday that Goss and some White House officials were concerned that unauthorized disclosures of information by the CIA during the election campaign “were intended to damage the president,” and he accused a “rogue” element within the agency of carrying them out.

From the New York Times:

In an interview, Mr. McCain said he told President Bush last week that “the C.I.A. was dysfunctional and unaccountable and that they refused to change.” The senator said he believed the C.I.A. had acted as a “rogue agency” in recent months by leaking information about the war in Iraq that was seen as detrimental to Mr. Bush and his re-election campaign.

Thanks to McCain’s entry into the game, the major dailies are now playing the chaos pretty much down the “he said/she said” middle, as the even-handed lede of Greg Miller’s story in the Nov. 16 Los Angeles Timesillustrates:

The resignations of two more senior CIA officials Monday fueled debate in the intelligence community over whether the agency was tumbling into turmoil under new Director Porter J. Goss, or was taking painful but necessary steps toward fixing serious problems.

When reading press accounts of bureaucratic battles, it pays to remember that most reporters tend to dance with the source that brung ‘em. All other things being equal, if the Daily Bugle scores a scoop one day about how the FBI undermined the CIA in some interagency misadventure, then the next day’s Morning Gazette will probably detail how it was actually the CIA that screwed over the FBI. If the coverage continues in this predictably partisan fashion, it’s a safe bet that the CIA is feeding the Bugle and the FBI is feeding the Gazette—and that both papers have become captives of their sources. 

I don’t think any paper has become a tool of the rebels or the Empire quite yet, but as the Langley knife-fight escalates to hand grenades, beware of any reporter who over-flatters agency veterans or insists on drawing horns on Goss. The truth this time, I suspect, is not in the compromise space halfway between the bureaucrats but a point above them on the y axis where every disparaging thing you’ve read about the agency and every wicked thing written about Goss is accurate.