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What's Wrong with the CIA
How the Agency Should be Changed
by BILL CHRISTISON

Former CIA Analyst

The disaster in which U.S. foreign policy finds itself arises mainly from the lies of an administration that had long wanted war in Iraq. Even George Tenet, protesting too much his own sterling objectivity, stated in his February 5 speech that his analysts had “never said there was an imminent threat.” Too bad that in the months before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 he made no effort to shout that statement out to the world. It might have kept us out of an appallingly ill-considered war. But Tenet’s silence before he came to see himself being sacrificed as the scapegoat is merely more evidence that some of the real blame for the debacle does accrue to inherent weaknesses in the U.S. intelligence establishment. Since the debate we should have had right after September 11 has finally erupted, we should honestly address these weaknesses. What is wrong with U.S. intelligence and what is to be done?

Historically, the CIA has flourished or faded depending on the relationship of its director with the incumbent president. The Agency’s internal structure, however, influences this relationship. The CIA has two major, sometimes conflicting, arms — an operational unit carrying out covert action and collection activities, and an analytical unit. Of the two, most recent presidents have regarded the covert action and collection part of the Agency as the more important. It is the part of the CIA that allows an action-oriented president — and what president wants to be identified in any other way? — to do things, to take actions, with little oversight. This makes it difficult for directors of central intelligence to present to the president reports and judgments from the analytical unit if those reports criticize the president’s policy preferences or the CIA director’s own covert action recommendations in support of the president’s policies. Most CIA directors, therefore, are often in conflict with themselves or their subordinates over these two separate aspects of their job, and it is almost impossible for them to do both parts equally well.

Two changes are needed.

First, the operational arm of the agency should become a separate organization, with a new name and run directly out of the White House. All covert operations should by law require the written approval of the president, designated committee chairmen of the Congress, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. All three branches of government should be represented here, even if a constitutional amendment is required to bring this about.

In a democracy, covert operations should be exceptional, and the controls over them should be exceptional. Generally, no covert intelligence operations abroad should be carried out by other intelligence agencies, and the number and size of such operations should be held to a minimum. The multiplication of such operations in recent years, and the not so subtle advertisement, indeed glorification, of them by the U.S. media, have contributed substantially to the hatred of Americans that is steadily expanding around the world.

Second, the analytical part of what is now the CIA should become another separate agency. It could either keep the present name or not, but its head should be the head only of this analytical body. A critical change here should be that under new legislation the head of this body would be appointed for a ten-year term. The new agency should have absolutely no operational or covert action responsibilities and, lacking such responsibilities, it should pose no unacceptable dangers to our form of government. (The head of the FBI, by the way, is already appointed for a ten-year term, and the danger that arose under J. Edgar Hoover of an FBI director becoming too powerful came about at least in part because the FBI director does have significant operational and action responsibilities, including, in conjunction with the Justice Department, the power of arresting people or harassing them through the FBI’s investigative powers.)

The positive result should be that a new director of this exclusively analytical agency would have greater independence than present and previous directors of the CIA have had and make him or her less a part of any given administration. Senior officers of this new agency should be assigned to every other intelligence agency to ensure that intelligence is passed to the analytical agency, and those officers should by statute have access to every substantive document produced by the other agencies.

Other intelligence agencies should continue to produce and disseminate any reports they wish, but the new agency, with its greater independence and with access to all sources, would have primary responsibility both for producing reports on its own initiative and for answering requests for analyses from the White House and Congress.

Independence from any president and any administration is the most important thing now absent in the CIA’s analytical unit. Breaking up the CIA as suggested above — splitting it in two — is in my opinion the only way to achieve that independence.

A personal note is necessary here. Although I no longer have access to information that the present CIA director tells the president and other top leaders of the government, I have studied the unclassified sections of George Tenet’s briefings in recent years to committees of Congress. He seems rarely to have said anything that President Bush would not have liked to hear. In a world as complex as the one we live in today, that is alarming.

BILL CHRISTISON joined the CIA in 1950 and worked on the analysis side of the Agency for over 28 years. In the 1970s he served as a National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser of the Director of Central Intelligence) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa. Before his retirement in 1979, he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit.