May 8, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

The rap on W's new CIA pick

Today the White House will name Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, now the principal deputy director of National Intelligence (PDDNI), as the new Central Intelligence Agency director, replacing Porter Goss, who was unceremoniously sacked last Friday.

Rumors whirl about Goss' unexpected canning after only 18 months in the post; it seems his demise stems from conflict with his boss, John Negroponte, the director of National Intelligence (DNI), the intel world's top dog since last year's reshuffle.

At first blush, Hayden seems a highly-qualified candidate to lead the troubled CIA - but he's far from a shoo-in for the job as the nation's head spook.

On the plus side, he's a successful military intelligence officer who's reached his profession's top ranks. With four stars across his shoulders, he's the most senior military intelligence officer in the U.S. armed forces today.

Before becoming PDDNI last spring, he capably led the super-secret, high-tech National Security Agency (NSA). He managed both civilians and military at one of the U.S.'s largest spy agencies, showing the ability to handle big intelligence enterprises like the CIA.

His appointment signifies he has the trust and confidence of the White House - an essential for any senior government executive. He worked for Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld while NSA director, and served with current Secretary of State Condi Rice as a staffer on the Bush 41 National Security Council.

As Negroponte's No. 2, Hayden sees the intelligence community's function - and its reform - in the same way as his boss. The general knows better than anyone else what the DNI wants out of the CIA.

Equally important is Hayden's experience (credibility) as a senior staff officer at theater commands in Europe and Asia -no trivial matter while we're at war across the globe. He knows what kind of intelligence support the likes of Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey need in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hayden, a career military man, also has the advantage of being seen as apolitical. Having been tapped for top jobs in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, he's likely to be considered a nonpartisan public servant.

And where Goss came to CIA from having been a fierce critic of the agency as chairman of the House Intel Committee, and never bonded with the agency as director, Hayden starts with a clean slate. He should have a good chance to boost basement-level morale after Goss' tumultuous tenure.

But Hayden will face a number of challenges en route to his new desk at Langley. Critics are carping even before he's officially nominated.

Senate Democrats are going to try to score as many political points as possible this election season by making a catfight of Hayden's involvement with the Terrorist Surveillance Program - the NSA's controversial, counter-terror wire-tapping effort.

In the days after a leak had the media going wild over wiretaps, Hayden did well briefing Congress on the program - even winning some fans on Capitol Hill. Still, even some Republicans, such as Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), will now demand more answers on the program.

Plus, many - including some of his former colleagues in Congress - admired Goss for the thankless job he was doing at Langley. They're not happy with his abrupt dismissal. It's unclear whether Hayden, as PDDNI, played any role in Goss' downfall - but he may still take some blame.

Hayden also lacks experience in human intelligence (HUMINT) - the CIA's core mission area, and (rightly) a central focus of the Goss reform drive. Although he worked as a defense attaché (an overt intelligence collector) behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria, Hayden doesn't have Goss' more extensive clandestine spy creds.

You'll also see worries that Hayden, having served under Rumsfeld, will be too ready to let the Pentagon (already seen as engaging in a HUMINT land-grab) subsume CIA's new National Clandestine Service - diminishing the range of views in the intelligence picture seen by policymakers.

On balance, despite some drawbacks, Hayden makes sense to succeed Goss. Here's hoping the likely Senate confirmation fight doesn't drag out too long - he's got his work cut out for him.

Hayden will take the helm of an agency in dire straits - its relevance challenged by the last year's intelligence restructuring, and its turf besieged by a defense secretary hungry to absorb more intelligence responsibility under the Pentagon to directly support the armed forces.

It's a vital job. With the nation at war overseas, Iran on the boil and the CIA embattled at home, Hayden - and the agency - must deliver the critical intelligence needed to ensure our security without fail.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and author of the book "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post Online Edition