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Reforming the CIA

by Bill Christison

The CIA was established 55 years ago. The entire U.S. intelligence community today includes at least a dozen agencies and, contrary to general perception, the CIA does not actually control any of the others. Over these 55 years, the multiplicity of agencies has led to inefficiencies, duplication, waste, and internal rivalries. Everyone should remember that the CIA was created for the express purpose of preventing a second Pearl Harbor from ever happening. Half a century later, last September 11, a second one occurred, and it occurred because of an inexcusable failure to exchange information within the intelligence community.

As far as I can see at the moment, there is no “smoking gun” that would clearly point to dereliction of duty personally by President George W. Bush, although it is possible that evidence will appear in the future to change this judgment. But the evidence emerging this past week makes it clear that the U.S. government has suffered a massive intelligence failure. If the CIA report delivered to the President on August 6 had been supplemented, either then or at any later time before September 11, with other information that was available to the FBI, the president would have a more direct responsibility. The evidence available today is that the CIA did not receive that additional information until long after September 11. So the massive failure, as far as we can tell at this point, is within the intelligence community itself.

That brings us to a dilemma. If the United States wants an intelligence apparatus of maximum efficiency, it would require a CIA, or some new organization with a different name, that would be truly “central” and have real control over all the components. The danger would be that the resulting organization could be a monster–a body too powerful to accept within what is supposed to be a democracy.

My own belief is that the country does need an intelligence service, but that there should be a lot more public discussion of how big and how “centralized” it should actually be. My own vote would be against creating a CIA organized as it now is that would dominate and control the rest of the U.S. intelligence community. I also believe that the big increases in the amounts of money that seem to be going to the CIA and other intelligence agencies (reportedly rising from some $29/$30 billion to $35 billion annually) are not necessary.

In any event, the U.S. intelligence community, and specifically the CIA, should be changed in a major way. The most serious problem facing this “community” today is that the individual agencies far too frequently provide biased analyses that reflect the preferred policies of the agencies. It’s difficult for the intelligence components of the Defense Department, for example, to present analyses of foreign military capabilities that might undercut the desires of Defense budgeteers for more money. To one degree or another, similar difficulties face analysts in the intelligence components of the State Department, the FBI, the Energy Department and elsewhere.

Even the CIA analytical components, which sometimes pride themselves on having the only intelligence analysts without policy axes to grind, cannot claim pure objectivity. They can be influenced by their own superiors and by White House officials who want analytical backing for both overt policies and covert actions they desire to pursue. You should add to these pressures the turf rivalries and differing agency cultures that at their best and with no malice can make th4e exchange of information imperfect, and at their worst can make one or another agency deliberately selective in such information exchange..

The CIA itself, not having one of the government’s major established departments (State, Defense, etc.) behind it, flourishes or fades depending on its relations, and particularly the relationship of its director, with the incumbent president and his national security advisor. Very important in this regard is the fact that the CIA has two halves: a covert collection and action half and an overt analytical half. Of the two, most recent presidents have regarded the covert half as the more important. It is the half that allows an action-oriented president–and what president wants to be identified in any other way?–to “take action”. That tends to make many directors of central intelligence (DCIs) reluctant to present analyses to the president that differ from the president’s policy and covert action preferences. There have been exceptions; a few DCIs have been very strong. But I do not think the evidence supports a conclusion that the present DCI is one of those exceptions.

I’d like to see new legislation that would completely split the analytical half of the CIA from the operational, or spooky, half. Even without control over the other intelligence agencies, the CIA with its two halves is, in my opinion, too powerful. The operational half should become a body with a new name and be run directly out of the White House, and by law every covert operation should require written approval of the president, designated committee chairmen of the Congress, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. All three branches of the government should be represented here. No covert intelligence operations abroad, other than high-altitude reconnaissance and certain other technical intelligence functions, which should remain Defense Department responsibilities, should be carried out by any other intelligence agencies.

The analytical half of what is now the CIA could either keep the present name–CIA–or not. It doesn’t matter. But the new “director of central intelligence,” or give him a different title if you like, would be the head only of this analytical body. A key and critical change here should be that under new legislation the head of this analytical body should be appointed for a 10-year term. This would give a new “director of central intelligence” a higher degree of independence than the present and previous incumbents have had. Senior officers of this new agency would be assigned to every other intelligence agency, and should by statute have access to every substantive piece of paper produced by the other agency.

Other intelligence agencies should have the right to produce and disseminate any intelligence analyses they wished, but the new government-wide analytical intelligence agency, with access to all sources, would produce any reports it wished, and would be responsible for answering any and all requests for analyses from the White House, the Congress, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

My sense is that such independence is the most important thing now lacking in the analytical components of the intelligence community. Obviously I have no access to, or any detailed information about, the hundreds of specific things that the present DCI tells the president and other top leaders of the government. But I have read very carefully the unclassified parts of the present DCI’s recent briefings to committees of the Congress. As far as I can see, he has not said anything that President Bush would not have liked to hear. In a world as complex as the one we live in today, I find that somewhat alarming.

Bill Christison joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit. His wife Kathy also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979. The Christisons are regular contributors to CounterPunch.

Other CounterPunch articles by Bill and Kathleen Christison:

Kathleen Christison, Israel, A Light Unto Nations?, May 11, 2002

Bill Christison: The Disastrous Foreign
Policies of the United States
, May 10, 2002

Kathleen Christison: Before There Was Terrorism, May 2, 2002

Bill Christison: Oil and the Middle East, April 6, 2002

Bill Christison: Why the War on Terror Won’t Work, March 5, 2002


Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.

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