The CIA Scandals: How Bad a Blow?

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(L to R) Central Intelligence Agency / AP ; Multnomah County Sheriff's Office / AP

Harold Nicholson, left, and Nathaniel Nicholson

The last thing the CIA needs right now is another scandal, let alone two.

Allegations that the CIA chief in Algiers (identified in the press, though not by the government, as Andrew Warren) drugged and raped two women is going to hurt badly. The accusations that Harold Nicholson, a former CIA operative in federal prison convicted of spying for the KGB, continued his work from behind bars isn't nearly as serious, but it won't exactly help the agency's reputation. Nicholson, who allegedly enlisted his Nathaniel son to collect his KGB "pension" and to pass on whatever secrets Dad still knew, is pretty much stale history. But even so, the news is an unwanted reminder that the KGB was eating the CIA's lunch in the 1990s — along with the National Security Agency's and the Department of Defense's. (See the top 10 Secret Service code names.)

The system is supposed to filter these people out, or at least catch them early on in their careers. Certain press reports have described Warren as a talented, aggressive officer, but some people who knew him considered him reckless and impulsive. I am told that he barely got through training, and it was recommended that he be permitted to work only under close supervision. The warnings apparently were ignored because of pressure on the CIA after 9/11 to put more people in the field.

And none of this is to mention that it was a serious mistake to send Warren to Algeria, a country that elected an extremist Islamic government and has absolutely no tolerance for rape. By the way, the fact that Warren, who had converted to Islam and is said to speak Arabic fluently, reportedly went to a mosque in Algeria to look for sources was an amateurish ploy that could only have drawn suspicion on him. Since the Justice Department began looking into the allegations late last year, Warren has been called back to Washington, according to ABC News, which broke the story. Neither he nor his lawyer could be reached for comment, but Warren has reportedly denied the allegations; according to an affidavit filed by federal investigators in U.S. District Court in Washington, he insists that he had consensual sex with both of the women who have accused him of rape.

Still, don't make the mistake of giving these cases importance that they don't deserve. Or worse, don't jump to the conclusion that the CIA is overrun with misfits. CIA employees are still some of the most closely and routinely scrutinized workers in government. They endure regular and intrusive security background checks and polygraphs. Also, the CIA has a history of cleaning up its own messes. It was the CIA that caught Nicholson, as it did the notorious KGB mole Aldrich Ames.

And the fixes are easy. In Nicholson's case, move him to the supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo., and keep him there in isolation for the rest of his life. As for Warren, if guilty, indict, try and send him to prison. It would go a long way in undercutting the outrage in Algeria.

About the time incoming CIA director Leon Panetta sits down in his seventh-floor office to assume his new duties, he can count on the phone ringing off the hook — the Senate and House congressional intelligence committees will demand blood from anyone without a lily-white record. The pressure to join in a witch hunt is going to seem irresistible to Panetta.

My advice to Mr. Panetta: resist it. This country cannot afford to turn the CIA into a Boy Scout troop. And there is a quick and easy fix to CIA staffing. Iraq and Afghanistan are grossly overstaffed with good, capable officers. These people are more than adequate to run the CIA's posts around the world. Having so many people in Iraq and Afghanistan was a Bush White House decision. Cut back in those two countries by two-thirds and the CIA will do just fine.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, Blow the House Down.

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