The CIA’s Cassandras


At no time has the U.S. based its foreign policies on facts — as opposed to its conceptions reliant on sheer wishes, interests, or pretensions, (its ambitions are often a mixture of all of these). Nor has it had fears that are warranted by reality. It has needs, whether economic or geopolitical. It has, however, often had the correct intelligence and the facts before it to warrant entirely different policies on its part.  At the same time as it gets into tenuous military situations, situations it is often destined to lose and pay a great deal for while in the process of doing so, it employs people to produce rational analyses—which it then ignores.  Why?

The United States is scarcely alone in suffering from an analytic myopia or intelligence failures.  The most important events in the world in the decades before 1945 were due to the actions of the Germans, French, Japanese, and English, who ripped traditional European and Asian societies apart; they were unprepared for the traumatic consequences of the two world wars they so blithely began, the results of which caught the simplified military strategies of the Germans, especially, by shock and uprooted a good part of the world —Europe, China, and the Middle East at least — in the process of making wars.

U. S. governments assumed after 1946 that Communism in Russia, and the strange mutation that exists in China, whose real power today is not ideology but the fact its capitalist practice gives it immense foreign exchange which is so important in the world capitalist economy and allows, among many things, China’s nominally Communist rulers to buy more luxury Western autos than any other nation.  The entire Soviet bloc capsized after 1991 and the world has only gotten more violent since, and its violence was due–among other reasons–to the immense quantity of arms the U. S. gave the Islamic fundamentalists (the Taliban) in Afghanistan to bog down the Soviet invaders there; and the support they gave at least initially to Islamic fundamentalists in Iran because the secular nationalists who then led the Iranian Government after winning democratic elections, wanted to raise petroleum royalties on British interests and the U.S. joined the fray after the British agreed to a much larger American share of oil and its profits

The Central Intelligence Agency is a very large organization, with many sections, some dealing with killing and torturing people, others engaging in nefarious activities from overthrowing governments to building useful contacts in areas of interest to the U. S., finding what friends and potential enemies may be up to in ways that are secret, to providing disinterested analysis, which can be very contrary to what important leaders want to hea.   Like the entire military establishment, it is increasingly hiring contractors to work for it, organizations that have technical skills the CIA has in short supply or not at all and which are also motivated by a desire to make a profit so they are unlikely to recommend any course of action that will put them out of business. There is a wall of ignorance between these divisions, and most have scant knowledge of what the others are doing.  The interesting question here is that in theory some analysis divisions are supposed to deliver all the perspectives and facts they can on dilemmas that the U.S. will confront in dealing with issues related to foreign policies They are not supposed to conform to any preconceived policy that has already been determined.

This section is in a limbo because it is supposed to produce estimates or intelligence accurately, and although the American ethos and high culture nominally favors looking at all news objectively—whether its bad or good—it in fact rarely does so—which is why the U.S. so often gets into trouble. There is a positivist tradition in American culture. Its universities prove that, especially in science.  There are also yahoos and boobs — H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis deal with these people, and most Republican presidential candidates today and the Tea Party personify them.  Intellectually, the U. S. is functionally schizophrenic and it always has been. The CIA’s ambiguous role reflects this dualism, but it also creates troubles for those in power, who generally prefer living with it rather than denying one of the positive or rational assumptions of the American heritage.

In fact, the US is in a box because it makes its goals look more attainable than they in fact are, and it gets into bigger and more expensive troubles than it would if it
considered everything that might occur because of its policies and goals.  There is a positivist tradition in America but it has not been strong enough to override the ignorance and interest that coexist with it.  Ideally, tactical intelligence should not be allowed to color the choice of objectives.  Frequently it does, and so the U.S. gets into wars that it fails to win, that are extremely costly as well as bloody to itself and its enemies.

The head of the CIA is usually a political appointee who does not want to present the President with other dilemmas  —even if there are real ones. Some, like William Casey under Ronald Reagan, regarded the CIA analysis wing as an instrument to justify predetermined policies — the facts were not supposed to determine policy but preconceived objectives were to define truth. In effect, truth was to be distorted.  Most senior American officials have looked with contempt on the CIA’s analysts, ignoring the logic of their assessments when they recommend courses of action that are not so belligerent and likely to avoid hopeless conflicts. As with Vietnam and Iraq, the men-of-power in Washington have frequently simply ignored what the CIA reported after careful study.   CIA analysts predicted a whole array of American troubles in the Vietnam War, starting with the period after the French defeat when the Americans were taking over, down to the period before the Tet Offensive, and they were ignored. CIA experts in January 2003 told the White House that war in Iraq would produce instability and disputes, even civil war, between Shiites and Sunnis in the postwar period, which happened, but the President and his advisers simply paid no attention to their careful assessments and went ahead with the war despite the fact that evidence for the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was also, at best, shaky. Even Pentagon bureaus that produced data that led to critical assessments of the way the Vietnam War was going, (as did the System Analysis Office, which senior officers tried to close down a number of times,) got into trouble when they reported information to officers that they didn’t want to hear. Throughout the Vietnam War, one of the most important issues, the land distribution question, was regarded in the Pentagon as some sort of exotic topic to be ignored even after they sponsored accurate studies on it.

Instead, the policy of ignoring their advice has managed to alienate a sufficient number—some, far from all—of the people in the CIA who are to provide precisely disinterested intelligence.  In sufficient cases, they have written articles and books about it. In theory a place for truth exists in the CIA; but in practice it rarely counts or informs American foreign policies. Some critical analysts argue that in 1973 the policymakers began to increasingly ignore the critical CIA analyses. The National Intelligence Council, whose 2020 and 2025 projects relies heavily on non-CIA inputs, and produces a mixture of futurology related to economics, geo-politics, ecology, and much else, is quite useful to map out the global future in 2020 and 2025.  They may be wrong, at least in part, but they are serious.

The question is why does it have costly people whom it ignores. A largely CIA National Intelligence Estimate last December reported that the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan, after 10 years, is stalemated, in large part because the alternative~the Karzai regime–is corrupt and has no effective national administration to challenge the Taliban.  But the Pentagon and American ambassador in Kabul think the war is close to being won.  The same problem and fundamental difference, I should add, confronted the United States in South Vietnam from January 1973 to May 1975, when the Nguyen Van Thieu regime simply capsized and abandoned the nation as quickly as possible..

Why, in short, does the U. S. Government make it possible for me to be able to get some fascinating publications free, on the CIA web site? Why does the U. S. Government have people like this in the first place, to be ignored on really critical decisions when they are needed most lest the U. S.  gets into more losing situations, which has been the rule for decades now?  That is the most important question. They have often enough told their superiors the truth in time, but they were ignored.  Why? What kind of people does the CIA attract? Why are those in power unwilling to accept rational assessments? CIA personnel range from adventurers and instinctive killers to careful students of a topic, often with a knowledge of language skills that are useful.

U. S. priorities, like those of many countries, have been confused and based on surprises and where the shooting is. Illusions then begin.   Why? Another factor never to be minimized is that whenever national elections roll around, an Administration’s substantive foreign policy is affected by its lust for votes. Then good intelligence has a smaller role than ever.

The CIA ends up alienating many of their own top analysts whose work is ignored if they disagree with what the military and decision-makers have, in effect, decided in advance they want to hear for their own reasons, political and ideological. These reasons can also range from a justification for more military spending, a reason Willard G. Mathias, former CIA head of Soviet assessments complained was the case when it came time for military service officials to read Soviet intentions in such a way to justify their getting more money when they confronted far less alarming CIA estimates of the same topics, to the “credibility” of American military power once wars began but before they were finished without a clear American victory.  Dour conclusions about the Russian or Chinese capability and intentions justify greater expenses and reinforce the political and bureaucratic ambitions of those who propagate them,

Not all analysts give them bad news regarding the irrelevance or incorrectness of what politicians want to hear for their own purposes, but nonetheless the actions of those in the existing Administration who count often are based on irrationality and the so-called intelligence analysis process Is a myth; the U. S. often gets into trouble and long, expensive and futile wars, as a result.  Indeed, some of the analysts who become whistle blowers are themselves very exotic, quite unusual individuals who often propose alternatives that are quite quixotic. Intelligence services everywhere tend to attract some potentially unstable people. There are many other nations in this past century that have based their actions on illusions, ranging from Nazi Germany to postwar France. But that is no solace for the Americans.  Other nations have also shared the illusions that motivated American foreign policy after 1945 and made it stalemate or lose all its major wars. But the U.S. has had greater power and pretension than any other nation in recent decades and still does.

The disdain that the CIA’s analytic branch confronts is quite pervasive, especially from professors who join the government as advisers and officials and have a higher regard for their own analytic abilities.  The CIA’s analytic prognoses are often wrong, but it has sometimes proven right on crucial issues, as in the nominal justification for the war in Iraq, where CIA analysts argued that the “proof” President Bush used to justify making it 2003 was false.

The problem of ignoring accurate analyses produced within the government is compounded by the fact that successive American governments have been unable to define priorities for action and then conform to them. After the Korean War, which was fought for over three years and ended where it began, the 38th parallel, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles swore not to fight another land war in Asia, relying instead  on atomic war to attain “more bang for the buck,” but then the U. S. fought another conventional war on Asian territory in Vietnam, which after over a decade of using immense firepower and manpower it finally lost.  Vietnam proved that whatever it declares its intensions, the U. S.’s functional policy, whenever the “credibility” of its power and reputation is at stake, will ignore its nominal priorities and the good advice it gets from its own experts that does not conform to its compulsion to prove it still has the power to be the dominant military force in the world.  Its essential powerlessness, in the end, thereby gets it into deeper trouble and illustrates the limits of its might.  Futile effort to prove its “credibility” only leads to further defeats, in part because it ignores the advice that more realistic advisers within the government give it, in part because its fixation on quixotic victories it cannot attain dramatically further reveals the weakness of its military.

There is rarely any place in its functional policy for an objective analytic process to play a role.  The U. S.’s priorities are repeatedly where the shooting is, and they are determined foolhardily, almost quixotically and arbitrarily, reflecting ambition, pretension, hubris, and other subjective factors.

The CIA’S fundamental problem is that despite the obeisance of the American culture and the positivist tradition that exists in American life since the founding of the nation, the reality is quite different.  The CIA pretends to be objective, and undoubtedly some within it are or want to be, but for a variety of reasons, strategists ignore advice they do want to hear from the CIA. The CIA analytic section is, on the whole, ineffective. There is too much information available and decision-makers use only what reinforces their preconceived conclusions and their desires, in the case of Presidents, for reelection.

What is there in the U.S. culture that makes the search for valid information–or good intelligence–essential?  War mongers and traditional “truth-seeking” positivists both coexist in Washington, and that is the source of intelligence’s main contradiction.  It is a fact that the system is many things, and while it is true the CIA has divisions that harm many they also have objective truth-seekers. This contradiction in theory versus practice suffuses American life, and it has for well over a century. It is also the source of alienation for objective CIA analysts who get frustrated by being ignored.

This hypocritical dualism is America’s essential hang-up; it lives with this inconsistency, proclaiming its commitment to truth but going its own way at the same time.  The consequence is a nation that is profoundly hypocritical.

On some vital topics, the CIA has a terrible track record on predictive matters. But it is vital to distinguish the roles of various divisions, which have totally different responsibilities, and I am talking here about the benign reporters who examine information, report on it objectively, and are then ignored.  To repeat, the CIA is a very big organization with all sorts of different responsibilities, ranging from villains, increasingly contractors whose principal interest is in making money, who may murder in another hemisphere while sitting behind a computer or TV screen in offices in the United States, to objective reporters who try to make accurate predictions….  and have no power over the actual decision=makers. They too are often wrong, if only because the world is becoming increasingly complex and the amount of information to assess has increased exponentially, but if it is correct then it is ignored if those on top do not like the policy implications of accurate information.  The CIA’s December 2011 estimate of the Afghan war, which I referred to above, is a case in point.  It is unlikely this estimate will affect the White House’s Afghan policy in this election year.

The problem is that the U.S. government and the people who run it refuse to confront the limits of their own power realistically.  That is another aspect of the official culture. Optimism is part of the national ethos since the U. S. was founded, and it does not like to hear bad news; bad news is unwelcome, and assessments that warrant much more caution on its part are not accepted, including those from the CIA.   But it pays a branch of the CIA, gathered mainly around the National Intelligence Council, to produce objective assessments, and when the Council does so it consistently refuses to accept the logic of the action or analysis that follows.  This expensive practice, paying people to whom one pays scant attention, is merely an overhead charge of the essential hypocrisy which is an integral part of American life and a dimension of its ethos.

Were the leaders of the American Government more realistic and less ideological and compulsive, they would cut their losses and attempt far less.  It would live within its means rather than go into over 15 trillion dollars in debt and reconcile itself to the fact that it is not the hegemonic superpower that can do anything it chooses to.  They would certainly take their own analysts seriously. The essential dilemma is that truth can hurt, proving that futile policies that involve great commitments are both wrong morally as well as impractical. The existing regimes in Washington have immense contradictions to resolve, and so far have not done so.   They are unlikely to.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. He can be reached at: kolko@counterpunch.org.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience

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