This was one part of the mid-term shakeup that no one in the American capital saw coming. While the reshuffle among George W. Bush's close advisers was seen as an almost necessary move to save the presidency, not many were paying attention to the CIA and to its fairly new chief, Porter Goss. This is why when Goss announced he was stepping down last weekend, Washington was taken by surprise, and focus was redirected to the troubled Central Intelligence Agency.
Goss, a Republican congressman from Florida, who served in the past as a CIA agent and later headed the House Intelligence Committee, was brought in by President Bush on the eve of the 2004 elections to replace George Tenet. The agency was at its lowest point - slammed by the 9/11 inquiry commission for failing to deal with the Bin Laden threat, and mocked by the American public and congressional committees for misreading Saddam Hussein's intentions and insisting he possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Goss was to be the reformer who would lead the CIA back to its days of glory and restore the confidence of the American people in the body whose clandestine operations are supposed to ensure the country's safety, while conducting the war on terror. The reforms Goss was expected to carry out were known and accepted by all: to focus the agency on the threat of terror; dramatically increase its Arabic language-and-culture skills; and develop models of cooperation with other intelligence arms, in order to make sure that vital information does not get lost in the pipeline, as it did prior to 9/11.
This was not a small undertaking to start with, but Goss discovered it to be harder than he had thought it would be. First, there was a problem with his personal style. The former congressman brought with him to the CIA an entourage of aids and advisers who had worked with him in the House, but who had not worked their way up in the intelligence establishment. The professionals in the agency did not like what they called "the Goss-lings" and their intervention in the daily running of the CIA. And Goss's working relationship with the senior staff of the agency remained tense throughout his 20-month tenure there.
But these were not his biggest problems.
Shortly after Goss assumed his post, Bush - under pressure from Congress and the public - adopted a plan to overhaul the intelligence services. This included creating a new position - National Intelligence Director - filled by John Negroponte. For Goss, only a few months into his directorship of the CIA, this meant suddenly losing much of the authority he had, and a significant amount of the budget. For the first time in US history, the head of the CIA was no longer the number one adviser to the president on intelligence matters. Instead, he became only one among several heads of 17 intelligence agencies, relinquishing his primacy to Negroponte.
In addition, there was the ongoing turf war with the Pentagon, which, under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, aimed to take over more and more responsibilities traditionally belonging to the CIA.
Pressured from inside the agency by senior officials who didn't appreciate him and from the outside by Negroponte and Rumsfeld trying to tear off chunks of responsibility from the CIA, Goss decided to step down.
Bush accepted Goss's resignation with the obligatory praise over the job he has done during his short tenure. But Goss will not go down in history as the great CIA reformer he was expected to be. The task turned out to be too overwhelming even for a capable person who enjoyed all the backing of the president, the right political connections and some of the necessary background.
WITHIN DAYS, Bush announced the nomination of General Michael Hayden as Goss's replacement. Hayden headed the National Security Agency (NSA), a sensitive intelligence operation dealing with wiretapping and data collection, and later became the deputy National Intelligence Director, serving under John Negroponte.
Hayden was confirmed by the Senate a year ago to serve at this post and has already begun to hold meetings with lawmakers in order to guarantee his confirmation as director of the CIA. But the nomination is far from being considered obvious or consensual.
First, there is the fact that Hayden is a general. He will not be the first military man to serve as chief of the CIA - there were six before him - but at a time in which the agency is fighting for its independence in the face of the Pentagon's appetite for more authority, there are those who fear that the retired general won't be the right choice to stand up to his former superiors.
There is also the issue of the unwarranted wiretapping Hayden was responsible for when serving as head of the NSA. This practice, which was only revealed last year, drew waves of criticism against Bush, who was blamed for monitoring international calls made by Americans and foreigners in the US, without going through the legal system to obtain permission to do so. As part of his pre-confirmation campaign, Hayden promised Democratic lawmakers he would not rule out revising the existing surveillance laws in order to make such phonetapping operations legal and put them under scrutiny of the court.
Hayden, if confirmed, will face even greater hurdles than his predecessor. The CIA is still in need of serious reform, and according to experts recently quoted in the press, its anti-terror abilities are lacking.
He will also have to deal with the fallout of the "rendition process," in which terror suspects were apprehended by the CIA, flown around the world in private planes leased by the agency, and brought to secret prisons in other countries, where the rules of interrogation are less strict than those in the US, allowing for the use of torture. These "renditions" led the European Union to open an inquiry. This revealed that since 2001, the CIA has performed more than 1,000 such flights over Europe as part of the war on terror. The EU is demanding that the US stop the renditions and make sure all terror suspects are treated in accordance with international norms and rules.
Nevertheless, the administration believes that Hayden will be confirmed by the Senate and that he will be able to rebuild the agency's abilities in countering terror, while keeping it out of the headlines for a while.
For Bush, there is a lot at stake here. If Hayden gets the job and succeeds where his predecessor failed, this would be the president's first successful move since his reelection. With approval rates dipping to the low 30s, even a single successful nomination would be seen by the administration as a great achievement which could be used as a turning point in the fight for public support.