Will the CIA Lose its Name?

  • Share
  • Read Later
The initials CIA create a global brand name as recognizable as that of Coca-Cola. So it was no wonder that Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts got everyone's attention last week, when he proposed a U.S. intelligence overhaul so extensive that it would break up the Central Intelligence Agency and eliminate its name. George Tenet broke his silence as recently-retired Director of Central Intelligence to warn that the Roberts proposal "would result in the demoralization of a proud and extremely capable agency and less security for the American people... It is time for someone to slam the brakes on before the politics of the moment drives the security of the American people off a cliff." Numerous other CIA defenders were equally critical of a plan to put much of the U.S. intelligence community under the new name, National Intelligence Service.

But even some fans of the Agency have credited Roberts with ensuring that meaningful intelligence reform — going well beyond President Bush's convention-eve executive orders — will at least be seriously debated. And some were willing to ask, rhetorically anyway, whether it may indeed be time to put a new face on U.S. intelligence. "I think many of Roberts' proposals make some sense," said Richard Kerr, a respected former career CIA official who ultimately served as acting director. Kerr concurred with many of Roberts' ideas for strengthening the powers of the head of the U.S. intelligence community, adding that "it can be argued that maybe it?s time to change the name. You'd want to think it through pretty carefully before you take the step." After five decades of spying and toppling the occasional foreign government, the CIA is viewed in many countries as Uncle Sam's omnipresent leading edge. "It's got a lot of associations, a lot of history, carries a lot of baggage. It also carries a lot of cache with it, too," Kerr said. "CIA in some countries has more influence and more authority than the State Department has," he said. "It's not nagging a country on its human rights programs and it's not trying to get it to follow U.S. policies, it's often cooperating with it on things that those countries find important. So it has real impact with other countries. That's important."

One senior U.S. intelligence official said Roberts' proposal is too much too fast, and could create the sort of problems still being experienced by the major, ongoing effort to get the massive Department of Homeland Security functioning properly. "I'm inclined to think that we probably ought to do it in an evolutionary fashion, rather than the Roberts dramatic surgery," this official said. "It's just too hard for bureaucracies to adjust to. Look at Homeland Security and the birth pains they're having." Roberts insisted that he is not proposing "terminating the CIA." Instead, he argued, "We are making it more powerful. We are actually giving them more authority to do the job that they have to do." Still, many at the CIA were left to wonder whether the proposed National Intelligence Service would ever live up to the brand-name to which they have become accustomed. But they could take comfort in the fact that at least that part of Roberts' bill seemed to generate little immediate enthusiasm. By week's end, members of the September 11 commission were still studying the various intelligence reform proposals emanating from Congress. Commissioners largely reserved final judgment but praised Roberts for saying that "the present situation is not acceptable" and backing the commission's insistence on "putting someone in charge, truly in charge," as commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton put it. But should the CIA be renamed? "I'm just not clear on it," Hamilton said.