The politics of the Hayden nomination to the CIA are an object lesson in why the historian’s task is so very difficult. For a series of complex and highly contingent reasons, almost every position on this issue is confusing, and often at odds with long-run stances. It’s pretty hard to understand what is going on today; it will be even harder to recapture it in the future, and almost impossible to explain it to people who are not well marinated in all the messy details.
Let’s start with the Bush administration. The administration describes its motive for choosing Hayden as a reflection of his long experience and knowledge — in short, competence. That’s always possible, but hardly characteristic of this administration. And in fact the nominee’s indisputable competence is in sigint, not in humint, which is the area that most establishment observers say is the CIA’s current crisis.
More plausibly, several commentators have suggested that this is intended as a wedge appointment. By picking a technocrat with a strong c.v. who has also made public statements arguably calling into question his understanding of and commitment to the Fourth Amendment, the Rovians thought they were setting up the Democrats to oppose an indisputably qualified candidate which would then allow the opponents to be accused of being soft on terror or having an archaic and feminine pre-9/11 vision of freedom.
A third, highly cynical, version says that this appointment was designed to fail: that it exists to give vulnerable Republican legislators something to be against so that they can create the appearance distance from the administration. This is not a plausible story because losing this nomination would make the administration look so weak that it might never recover.
What gives the third version the shred of plausibility is the vocal opposition to this nomination from the Republican right. The issue there is being framed as civilian vs. military, with the subtext being a concern that Hayden would support or fail to fight the slide of authority to the spook shops in the Pentagon. While that’s a very valid concern, it darned odd to see the GOP raising it now. Although they may have woken up to the danger that Rumsfeld is no longer in full command of his faculties, as a long-run matter they have no beef with the Pentagon. Yes, the military intel people winning the turf wars are Neo-Cons rather than paleoconservatives, and yes, they’re not the brightest bulbs, and yes, the CIA was the traditional fief of the Yale establishment conservative, but even so. It’s hard to tell who’s serious and who is being disingenuous here. Interestingly, however, today the spinners suggest that Hayden will be an anti-Rumsfeld appointment — although the bureaucratic horse may have already bolted.
Now consider the odd position that the Democrats find themselves in. The CIA has been known to be dangerous and stupid for going on 20 years. The NSA were the smart guys (and, until recently, we thought the straight-and-narrow guys too); the CIA were the loose cannons and the B/C+ students. The quality of the analysis during the cold war tended to be rather low, and the quality of the covert missions spotty at best, and quite dire at worst. So no great love lost there. Plus, as a matter of democratic theory, Democrats at least as much as Republicans are wired to want firm civilian control of the spooks, especially the covert action branch. The Church Commission would never have happened in a Republican Senate.
But recently the CIA has been at war with the administration. Part of it is a CYA exercise over WMDs. Part of it the Plame outing. Part of it probably has to do with the CIA’s fear of prosecution for its killings, torture, renditions, and illegal activities on foreign soil, including several of our closest allies. On the one hand, Democrats are not in favor of rogue spies leaking to undermine their civilian masters. On the other hand, the Democrats are not for fake or cherry-picked or stovepiped intelligence, unnecessary wars, torture, outing agents, or George Bush. (Alas, the party is more split on the question of prosecuting criminal agents.) So it’s hard to figure out who to root for. Plus Democrats tend to like it when Republicans nominate technocrats — so long as they don’t seem like closet partisans; after all it tends to better outcomes than the standard practice of appointing unqualified open partisans, even when they are not caught up in sex scandals and money scandals. Thus, I’m afraid that Democrats will find it very hard to unite on this one, even given Hayden’s somewhat troubling statements about surveillance.
One would think, hope, that Hayden’s involvement in the NSA’s illegal wiretaps would suffice to make him unconfirmable. But the technocratic allure may yet carry the day, which is sort of sad, but not incomprehensible when the alternative — total ineptitude — is so dangerous and costly.