"I had the gravest forebodings about this organization and warned the President that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it." [Dean Acheson, "Present at the Creation"]
This year is the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Agency is a living relic of the first flush of the Cold War, along with the Department of Defense, the independent Air Force (was that really necessary?), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And it's time to ask some serious questions.
Is there any entity in modern America that has eaten up more money, wasted more lives, and done less good to the American people? Is there any group representative of America in the world that has brought more humiliation to our friends and more delight to our enemies? Is there any federal agency, however necessary, that is more untrue to the spirit of America? Any less accountable for its errors? Any that has brought down more blowback on our heads? Any that has done more to undercut the American people's belief in the essential decency of our public servants and the transparency of our government?
Who enacts U.S. policy in a given Latin American capital? The CIA station or the U.S. ambassador? If you ask the locals, what would they say? If you ask the ambassador, confidentially?
Is there any spy agency in the history of the world more reckless, amateurish, and incompetent? The two most effective Cold War presidents, Reagan and Eisenhower, largely ignored the CIA in dealing with the Soviet Union, and they made their best tough calls based on hunch and common sense. Just as well, since the CIA was consistently and potentially lethally wrong on Russian abilities and intentions throughout the period.
And will there ever be a president or a Congress strong enough to stand up to it? Even a vigorous and ruthless agency director like William Casey could not hack through the bramble of bureaucracy that surrounded the heart of the CIA. The bureaucrats knew they'd be standing after he was gone. As for U.S. presidents, none dared really try. Not even after the calamitous failures of 9/11. And what does the answer to that say about what we have let ourselves become?
In the beginning, the CIA had an arguably useful function, in countering the efforts of Stalin's USSR to subvert and bully the rest of the world into the Iron Curtain camp. American naively had expected the British to return to the ramparts after World War II and resume their traditional role in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and South Asia. By 1947, it was obvious that wasn't going to happen, and the U.S. would have to inherit the Great Game. It did so with much more enthusiasm than its skills warranted.
The CIA subsidized friendly European labor leaders and writers and thus help firm up a Western European voice to answer the subsidized shouts of the Stalinists. It quietly sponsored seminars and colloquia that exposed global intellectuals and journalists to ideas and facts that Moscow never was going to show them. It underwrote tours of Western Europe by U.S. symphony orchestras to prove to our allies that we weren't the nation of deculturated yahoos they assumed we were.
Once upon the time the CIA even gave the White House useful, if too often ignored, analysis of the world. For instance, it warned Truman of something now tragically obvious about the early Cold War: America's goals in Europe (bolster the old powers against the Soviet threat) conflicted with its goals in Asia (encourage national independence and end colonialism). It noted that the money Americans sent France and the Netherlands to rebuild themselves after World War II curiously matched the amount those nations spent to reassert their colonial empires in Southeast Asia.
Of course, that was back before the CIA had played a Dr. Frankenstein role in creating the geopolitical realities around it, so the agency had less emotional investment in the status quo as its own handiwork.
But from the beginning, too, there were compromises, such as going along with the George Polk murder cover-up story in Greece. Even the behind-the-scenes financial backing of anti-communist political parties in France, Italy and Japan -- a vital and necessary counter-check to the elaborate Soviet push to repeat their success in Poland and Czechoslovakia -- had its downside in, for instance, the lingering corruption still at the heart of Japanese party politics.
But the CIA's success in the Guatemala coup of 1954 [corrected] assured the ascendancy of covert operations over analysis and espionage. Eisenhower certainly was more suspicious of the agency than most of his successors, but it was he who gave the CIA carte blanch to fight communism worldwide, which had the practical result of assuring the agency it would be operating day to day without accountability or oversight. CIA officials themselves soon were deciding what was authorized, and the dangerous notion began to take root that, "If the president says so, it's legal."
Once the commitment was made to engage the Soviets in their own game, the path down into the muck hardly could have been avoided. The Americans had studied their British forebears and learned all their morally repugnant aphorisms: "Have 'em rubbed out by a plausible enemy; best if it's religious, but you always can find somebody. The trick lies in the concealment."
But if the slippery slope was unavoidable, the toboggan ride down it was. I suspect that began with the creation of the Office of Policy Coordination, set up to merge political subversion and military activity (as distinct from the Office of Special Operations, which handled espionage and counter-intelligence). Again, the goal was to counter Stalin at his own game, but it was a far more vicious one than mere electoral monkey business in Paris.
Through this secret agency within a secret agency, America acted out its Mr. Hyde side, with most of the country and Congress standing aside in willful ignorance. U.S. covert actions became a process hermetically sealed from any oversight except the agency's own. And even within the agency, the demands of "security" trumped internal review and accountability.
The whole culture of the clandestine activities created a sense among the men doing them that they were a secret sect of superheroes. Expertise was sacrosanct, regardless of how little practical success it could demonstrate. What John le Carré calls "intellocrats" rose to the top: In too many cases they were eager amateurs with exquisite liberal arts educations and absolutely no knowledge of the world, much less of the nations they suddenly were assigned to operate on like drunken surgeons. They were able to glamor Congress after Congress into giving them more money without the least accountability for how and where they spent it. Neither were they accountable for the blood-pools they dragged the country into.
During the Kennedy administration (both brothers had a juvenile fascination with clandestine operations) it became part of the State Department's regular mission to block or derail White House plans to use the CIA to, for example, "take out" China's nascent nuclear program, perhaps by using "anonymous planes."
As soon as it turned to subversion, the CIA began to rack up an impressive record of incompetence. It tried to foment resistance movements in countries where the agency had no one who spoke the native language, no knowledge of the culture or geography, and no maps more recent than World War I. You could spot a CIA clandestine operation a mile away, because the fingerprints it left were all thumbs [i.e. a 1950s assassination attempt against Indonesia's Sukarno that blew up everyone but the target].
In Eastern Europe, Tibet, Angola, and a dozen other places the CIA attempted paramilitary sabotage and guerrilla campaigns against communist governments that only managed to bring down death and torture on local folks who were willing to trust America to help them. Totalitarian secret services in Europe scooped up every brave agent and partisan we parachuted over their borders.
The Bay of Pigs is only the best-known example. Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick's report, declassified in 1998, called the effort "ludicrous or tragic or both." Predictably, it was classified top secret for decades. The doctrine of plausible deniability also meant that the CIA agents responsible for these fiascos generally escaped responsibility for their decisions. George "Slam Dunk" Tenet was not the first CIA director to retire covered with honors after giving his president lethally flawed intelligence.
When Yuri Andropov took over the Soviet Union, he had headed the KGB for 15 years and thus had been the CIA's chief adversary and a crucial Politburo player. Yet the agency had no idea whether or not he spoke English, or even whether his wife was alive (until she showed up at his funeral).
The list of things the CIA got wrong or failed to see coming is almost a history of the later 20th century. A few months before the Missile Crisis, the CIA concluded it made no sense for the Russians to send nuclear weapons to Cuba. The CIA consistently underestimated the size of the Soviet nuclear stockpile by as much as 100 percent. North Korea fired up a three-stage rocket in 1998 just after the CIA determined its capability to do that was still 15 years in the future.
The CIA failed to predict the 1974 Portugal coup, the Shah's ouster in 1979, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the 1998 nuclear test by India, and the al-Qaida attacks on the embassies in Africa that year. It was on dubious CIA-provided evidence that President Clinton responded to those attacks by ordering a missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum. The CIA let Russian contractors build the new U.S. embassy in Moscow in the early '80s, only to find it was so riddled with bugs, and of such sophistication, that the $400 million building never could be used.
The CIA agents and officers in East Germany were so inept they actually worried the Soviets, who began to wonder if the Americans didn't appreciate the importance of the East German military. The Iranians and Cubans have had no trouble eliminating or doubling the CIA's agents.
Illegal domestic spying? The CIA had been at it for decades. It's no coincidence that most of the Watergate burglars had ties to the CIA. The agency's 1963 manual on interrogation and the 1980s coercive techniques manual are enlightening reading for people who think this sort of thing only happens when George W. Bush is president. The latter publication's problems were compounded by poor translation for use in Central America, where the English "neutralize" unintentionally acquired a darker sense when rendered in Spanish.
Attempts to reform the agency in the 1970s only backfired, as the CIA responded by diligently dumping a cataract of reports every year on Capitol Hill, which no one had time to read and which still obscured the more unsavory aspects of fieldwork, such as complicity with the narcotics dealers and enablers whose products America was simultaneously fighting at home in the "War on Drugs." Thanks to the CIA, we kept company with thugs and sadists from Guatemala to Argentina far longer than was necessary if the goal was merely to oust Cuban-backed rebels.
One of the agency's few moments of competence, perversely, was over Afghanistan, when the agency in 1980 argued against putting sophisticated U.S. weapons in the hands of anti-Soviet guerrillas. In part, because it would leave the U.S. without a "plausible deniability." In part because the weapons were deemed too complex and powerful for the mujahidin to use. In part because the agency blanched before such a direct provocation of the Red Army. (In part, also, perhaps, to defend its turf against the Pentagon.)
Even if the CIA had done all this right, the damning case against it could be built solely on the catastrophic failure to smoke out its own moles, such as Aldrich Ames, who sold information to the KGB that led, among other things, to the execution of nine of the West's best agents and successful KGB double-agent efforts that pushed bogus information onto the Oval Office desk.
The agency, using expensive, super-secret spy satellites, never could get a viable picture of Soviet military activity. Meanwhile a Defense Intelligence Agency executive named William Lee cobbled together a workable model of the Soviet military economy by augmenting the meager secret sources with perfectly unclassified books, periodicals, government documents, and newspaper clippings. After the end of the Cold War, Soviet documents affirmed the accuracy of Lee's estimate of the Soviet military burden (about 28 percent of the USSR's GDP in 1988) over the CIA's (about 14 percent).
Even without the moles -- and the obliviousness to them -- the agency was arguably a liability. James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's long-time head of counterintelligence, was the classic Ivy League Brahmin obsessive who sank into paranoia.
KGB cadets in Moscow would be taught how Angleton had come to exemplify Lenin's theory that fervid, high-ranking anti-Communists would inevitably do more harm than good to their own cause. "He was our best asset," lectured one gray-haired colonel, explaining how Angleton had demoralized the Agency beyond Andropov's wildest dreams and how he had ruined counterintelligence to the extent that the Agency would end up having to pay compensation for his capricious firings. To make matters worse, Angleton had unwittingly deterred unknown numbers of defectors by his imprisonment of Yuri Nosenko, whose fate was apparent to all within the KGB. For the CIA to believe that Nosenko's plea for asylum was a sham also revealed to Moscow that the KGB itself had not been penetrated. Had Angleton done more harm than good? To answer this question, once he was pushed from office, the Agency undertook a six-year study in a vaultlike room that contained an even more secure inner vault. The public will never see the eleven volumes that resulted. [Derek Leebaert, "The Fifty-Year Wound," page 429]
All spy agencies have a James Bond fetish for the expensive, high-tech methods, but the CIA abuses the privilege. It was an inter-agency joke in the 1980s that the government was working on a secret new blockbuster satellite that would take pictures of unclassified Soviet writings in such a way that they would look like results of super-expensive space espionage, and thus assuredly come to the attention of high-ranking bureaucrats.
Perhaps even more disturbing is that in the years since, instead of learning from mistakes, the CIA has devoted itself to justifying them, or to undercutting its critics. Thanks to the flood of paperwork its officers were rewarded for producing, it's possible for the CIA to go back and pluck out some obscure report to prove that it anticipated anything. And it constantly does so, without mentioning the lack of urgency given to these odd lucky hits. It pours millions into dubious academic ventures like Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, which dutifully churn out impressive papers and conferences justifying the CIA's analysis. It still insists it knew more about the Soviet military than the ex-Soviet marshals who led it, who now write openly about what they were doing.
You can't learn from mistakes until you admit them. Instead the CIA clings to them with the tenacity of, well, duped art collectors:
Everyone wanted van Meegeren's forgeries to be masterpieces. The buyers and curators wanted desperately to acquire a Vermeer for their collections. The critics wanted, no less desperately, to claim responsibility for adding one more work to Vermeer's all-too-slim catalogue raisonné. And experts such as Bredius wanted to confirm their pet theories. Pride and self-regard colored judgment, and no one truly saw what he was looking at, because no one dared look closely.
Many of the people responsible for the errors of the 1980s are in leadership roles today. Economic matters, the gist of the 1980s Cold War bungling, are just as crucial today, as the CIA undertakes to track jihadist terrorist finances. Military ones still matter, too, as the U.S. ponders the size and purpose of China's army.
All of which predates 9/11. The CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center was a paper-shuffling institution crippled by internal squabbles. The U.S. had committed roughly $10 billion every year to counter-terrorism from 1996 on -- money given without accountability, of course -- and got little to show for it on Sept. 11, 2001.
On that morning, by one insider's estimate, less than 1 percent of the agency's 18,000 employees had anything to do with counter-terrorism; fewer than 800 field officers worldwide were working on it, and only a handful of those had backgrounds in Middle Eastern languages and cultures. A measure of the CIA's failure was the vast, empty parking lot at Langley the following morning, when "non-essential" government personnel were told to stay home.
Since then, the only apparent change in the agency is to make it bigger and give it more money. Surely some of this is justifiable and being used well. But how will we ever know, unless we accept that "bigger and richer" always equals "smarter?"
Is it fair to blame a secret agency for what it didn't prevent, without regard for what it did? Surely the CIA saved us from other calamities and we don't know about it. Frankly, I don't believe there's much to the benefit of the agency on that ledger. Given the CIA's embarrassed scrupulousness in touting its triumphs, I doubt there's much it has done that it hasn't managed to tell us about.
If I had to think of one justification for the CIA's continued existence, it would be that such a confused and amateurish crew is a great disproof of the charge that America is an empire. Real empires have real spy agencies.
Twice in the 1990s, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, long-time member of the Intelligence Committee, introduced bills to disband the CIA and assign its functions to the Pentagon and the State Department. One of Moynihan's wisest and most serious proposals, is -- sadly, typically -- dismissed as an example of his charming eccentricity.
It's not. It's a profoundly patriotic position. It ought to be done.