This is part one of a two-part series on the main presidential candidates’ intelligence policies. Next week we’ll look at Barack Obama.
Tall, broad-shouldered, mustached, Michael Kostiw looks like the former oilman and CIA case officer in Africa he once was. Now, as Republican staff director for Sen. John McCain on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, Kostiw, 61, is probably the closest top former CIA official to the Republican presidential candidate, and is discussed as a possible candidate for a senior intelligence position should McCain win the presidency. But his relationship with his former Agency is complex. Standing in his large office in the Senate Russell building on a quiet day during August congressional recess, Kostiw shows off a pair of wooden statuettes that were given to him by an African nation’s ambassador—and longtime top official in his country’s government—to Washington. The envoy, Kostiw says, is an old contact that he proposed trying to recruit two decades ago when he was a CIA case officer in the country. But his Agency boss at the time waved him off the recruitment, saying, “That guy isn’t going anywhere.”
It’s a small but telling anecdote in an almost two-hour conversation with a man whose career trajectory from CIA Soviet East Europe division operations officer to Texaco oilman to co-vice chair of the International Republican Institute to top Porter Goss and McCain Senate aide may signal what a McCain presidency would mean for the intelligence community—and why many from the CIA are quietly worried about a McCain presidency. The Bush years have been brutal for the CIA, which was pilloried for getting Iraq intelligence wrong while accused of downplaying and withholding intelligence from the White House that would have justified military action. Many current and former US spies expect a McCain administration guided by neoconservatives to treat them with hostility and mistrust. They also say McCain would likely weaken the CIA by giving broad new spying authorities to the Pentagon, which CIA officials believe is more amenable to giving policymakers the intelligence they want, while being subject to less congressional oversight.
These critics point especially to the McCain campaign’s top national security adviser Randy Scheunemann—who ran a front group promoting war with Iraq and the fabrications of controversial Iraqi exile politician Ahmad Chalabi, the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, and who has lobbied for aggressive NATO expansion. Scheunemann’s record, they argue, encapsulates everything wrong with the past eight years of Bush leadership on intelligence issues, from a penchant for foreign policy freelancing and secret contacts with unreliable fabricators, to neoconservatives’ disdain for the perceived bureaucratic timidity of the CIA and State Department, to their avowed hostility for diplomacy with adversaries. If McCain wins, “the military has won,” says one former senior CIA officer. “We will no longer have a civilian intelligence arm. Yes, we will have analysts. But we won’t have any real civilian intelligence capability.”
“McCain would be an absolute disaster,” says a second recently retired senior US intelligence operations officer. “He is prejudiced against the CIA. The day after the 2004 election when Bush won, McCain came on TV and gave an interview in which he said something to the effect of, ‘The CIA tried to sabotage this election. They’ve made their bed and now they have to lay in it.’ I used to like McCain, but he is inconsistent.” Columnist Robert Novak quoted McCain in November 2004 as saying, “With CIA leaks intended to harm the re-election campaign of the president of the United States, it is not only dysfunctional but a rogue organization.”
McCain is influenced by a circle of hardline Republican legislators and congressional staff as well as disgruntled former Agency officials “who all had these long-standing grudges against people in the Agency,” the former senior intelligence officer said. “They think the CIA is a hotbed of liberals. Right-wing, nutty paranoia stuff. They all love the military and hate the CIA. Because the CIA tells them stuff they don’t want to hear.”
But Kostiw says such fears are overblown. He insists that McCain’s national security inclinations are more independent than the neoconservative caste of his campaign’s advisory brain trust would suggest. “McCain on intelligence will favor an OSS-type agency,” Kostiw said, referring to the CIA’s World War II-era predecessor organization, the Office of Strategic Services. What does that mean? “An effective intelligence professional element that will take risks and will be responsive to civilian control and made up of the best and brightest officers the US has to offer.” A civilian agency? “It has to have a civilian function, but will have a vast military element as well. I always say, you have to keep the Central in the Central Intelligence Agency.”
“Lots of people talk to John on foreign policy matters—not just Randy Scheunemann,” Kostiw adds, ticking off a list of realist Republican foreign policy hands: Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, General Jim Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former defense secretary James Schlesinger. But are these people really in McCain’s inner circle? “The inner circle is the critical issue,” Kostiw concedes.
“There has been a battle within the McCain campaign between neoconservatives and realists, but by and large, neoconservatives hold the high ground,” says a former White House official now advising the Obama campaign on intelligence issues, on condition of anonymity. “And some of their positions have been deeply troubling,” he added, citing McCain’s proposal to kick Russia out of the group of eight leading industrialized countries.
Kostiw downplays any damage done by the McCain camp’s rhetorical hostility to Moscow. And he says that McCain has been around so long, he is not overly susceptible to the influence of his national security brain trust. “I’ve been in meetings with McCain, where some adviser is discussing a policy issue,” Kostiw said. “And at the end, McCain thanks them and says he’s made up his own mind, and the outcome is the other way.” Take his position against torture, Kostiw points out, a position that put McCain at stark odds with the Bush/Cheney White House.
But former CIA hands say they have heard such reassurances from Kostiw before—about former House intelligence committee chairman Porter Goss, who served as CIA director from 2004 until his sudden resignation in 2006—and they proved delusionally unfounded. “Mike [Kostiw] is a nice guy,” says the former senior CIA operations officer. “But this is the guy who sat around talking to all of us when Porter came in [as CIA director in 2004], and told us how much Porter respected us, and not to worry about the stories we hear. He was trying to reassure us that Goss was not out to destroy the Agency. He told us everything is going to be fine.” Goss (for whom Kostiw was a special adviser) brought to Langley several ultrapartisan House Republican aides—the “Gosslings”—whose hostility to the Agency’s senior operations officers and conviction that they were not loyal to the Republican president was so blatant, it led to the angry departure of the two top operations veterans—and dozens more—and sent morale plummeting. After Goss’ proposal that Kostiw serve in the CIA No. 3 spot crumbled when it was leaked that Kostiw had been fired from the Agency two decades earlier, allegedly for not paying for a package of bacon from a grocery store (some colleagues say that was just the cover story, and that Kostiw had in fact left the Agency for other financial-related reasons), Goss, against the advice of senior CIA officers, appointed a controversial, womanizing administrative officer, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, to be the CIA executive director. Foggo’s indictment on corruption charges related to the Congressman Duke Cunningham corruption case in May 2006 coincided with Goss’ abrupt resignation the same month. (Foggo is slated to go on trial in October.) The top two Agency operations vets who had quit in disputes with the Gosslings—Steve Kappes and Michael Sulick—returned to the Agency after Goss’ departure. And Kostiw, after serving as Goss’ “special adviser” at the Agency, went to work for McCain on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Kostiw may insist that a McCain presidency would steer away from his advisers’ ideological zeal. But his fellow former intelligence officers are skeptical, fearing his assurances will prove as overly optimistic as his promises to them about Goss.