The Intelligence Culture in the National Security Age

By late June 2003 the Sherlock Holmes unit of the US Army had not encountered stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that President Bush had assured us constituted an imminent threat to our security.

So, the CIA began to take the heat. CIA analysts didn’t furnish the President with accurate evidence on Iraq’s alleged weapons, some critics opined. Others charged that the Agency bowed to the President’s whim and distorted intelligence information. The President wanted to believe that

Saddam Hussein had accumulated threatening piles of arms and that he soon planned to supply them to the terrorists who hate us. And the White House asked them to furnish the data — whether or not it existed.

The Agency takes a beating again. CIA Director George Tenet will not testify before some congressional subcommittee that “the White House told us to distort the intelligence so that Bush could justify the war he always intended to wage against Iraq. And we CIA intelligence officials acted obediently as usual. Isn’t that our real function, to serve the political wishes of the President in power?” Tenet will take the heat.

Since its inception in 1948 the CIA’s ethical lapses produced by Cold War values and policies have plagued the Agency. When will Iraqgate surface?

High-level officials have already begun tossing around the blame ball like the proverbial hot potato.

Indeed, the June 17, 2003 BBC News reports (“Senator Queries WMD Claim”) that Michigan Senator Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he has evidence that the CIA purposely withheld key information from the UN’s inspectors deployed in Iraq. There would have been “greater public demand that the inspection process continue,” Levin continues, had the public known that the CIA had failed to share its detailed information with the UN inspectors.

“Did the CIA act in this way in order not to undermine administration policy? Was there another explanation for this?” Levin asked Instead of answering these rhetorical questions, I recommend that Congress turn the CIA into a branch of the Library of Congress. Instead of adding to the seemingly endless string of congressional inquiries, followed by reports with unheeded recommendations, just send CIA personnel to that wonderful building on Capitol Hill.

As a super secret arm of national security policy, the CIA has failed to abide by even its own rules. Repeatedly, high CIA officials have sold vital secrets to enemies. In the early 1990s, Aldrich Ames, a trusted Agency big shot with access to the family jewels, admitted (after being caught) that he had traded burning national secrets for cold cash.

How could the CIA have permitted such lax security, Congress naively wondered, as if greed and treachery only recently arose as characteristics of human behavior? They focused on how and why the CIA let Aldrich Ames go undetected for years while he conducted his lucrative transactions. But the larger and most obvious questions didn’t arise from the hearings: Why should a republic possess so many vital secrets? If they were so vital, how did our government survive after the Soviets learned them? What’s left to give away? And to whom?

We had suffered a similar shock in the 1980s. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger worried publicly that pre-Ames traitor spies inside US intelligence agencies had delivered to the Soviets most of our national security secrets. Add Ames’s top-secret information to those documents pilfered throughout the 1980s and there could hardly have been many top secrets our former enemy didn’t know.

However, possession of these secrets didn’t seem to help the Soviets. Indeed, no sooner did they obtain our vital secrets than they collapsed. If Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev’s throwing in the towel and refusing to play Cold War in the late 1980s resulted from his knowledge of these secrets, then Ames had inadvertently helped end the Cold War. If so, maybe Ames deserves a medal — except that he betrayed our agents, each of whom received a few hundred dollars a month to commit treason against his own country.

The Soviets used vital secrets — sources and methods — to discover and dispatch US agents, or Soviet traitors. We did the same to discover agents inside our vital secrets labyrinth. The Cold War was about fighting a mortal enemy. Wait! The Soviets proved quite mortal — may their corrupt Cold War souls rest in peace.

But remember that Congress created the CIA in the late 1940s for the exclusive purpose of centralizing intelligence to more efficiently combat the Soviet threat, now long gone. Maybe Congress should review the agency’s charter along with its recent intelligence blunders.

Such a reappraisal might show that the CIA frequently failed to provide accurate intelligence. Instead, it often provided the documents and rationale to justify policies and agendas designed by a series of Presidents.

In the early and mid 1980s CIA Director and ideologue uber alles William Casey directed the CIA to invalidate a former Agency report, citing signs of Soviet weakness, and to conclude instead that the USSR was stronger and more dangerous then ever. Its expansionist posture, the agency informed the president, demanded that the United States spend ever more money on weapons and covert actions, alongside a propaganda war, to counter the Soviet threat.

The initial report was true. The Soviet apparatus had begun visibly to disintegrate. In the early 1980s, an observant tourist could have testified to the breakdown of production, discipline and morale throughout the Soviet Union.

The Soviet threat, however, had served for four decades as a pretext for destabilizing elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, among others and assassinating people that Presidents didn’t like, such as Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (1961) and Lumumba in the Congo (1960)they never got Fidel.

As a result of some of these “black” operations, the CIA became linked to scandals like the 1970 murder of Chilean Chief of Staff General Rene Schneider and the lurid tales of drug and arms trafficking involved in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair.

The importance of the encompassing Soviet threat allowed the CIA to blithely alter the destiny of other peoples as well as to feed LSD to its own human guinea pigs, one of whom committed suicide. And they spied on Americans abroad and at home.

I know because in 1983 under a Freedom of Information Act request the CIA sent me copies of personal letters I had sent to and received from friends living in the Soviet Union and Cuba. I also received a lengthy personal portrait of my family and me. Millions of Americans could have received similar material from CIA files.

Imagine my surprise then in 1992, when a CIA official telephoned the Institute for Policy Studies where I had worked to request a briefing on ideas about the direction the CIA should take in the future.

For thirty years, IPS had functioned as a center of opposition to the Cold War. Its fellows opposed the arms race, US interventions in other nations’ affairs and the very notion of covert action itself. Needles to say, IPS did not approve of government agencies snooping into the lives of U.S. citizens.

Some 25 CIA executives arrived, explaining they had requested similar meetings with think tanks of other political stripes as well. Where were politics and economics going? Such a request from a CIA official during the Cold War would have shortened his career.

Did these officials fear that the CIA no longer had a raison d’etre? Did they understand that the Agency belonged exclusively to the Cold War and that it therefore had no legitimate charter in the post Soviet era? “We’ve always spoken truth to power,” one of our visitors said proudly, referring to the openness the Agency had for opposition points of view.

“But you’ve also spoken lies to power,” I added. “And for more than 40 years, the lies have prevailed.”

The discussion turned cold. I had insulted them. But the analysts we met seemed like solid researchers who, given a proper atmosphere, could sift and winnow facts and come to reasonable and objective conclusions.

Maybe, my colleague suggested, the CIA could acquire legitimacy if Congress folded it into the Library of Congress, where in full view of other researchers, professionals could gather data and inform our decision makers.

Think of the money and embarrassment we’d save by ridding ourselves of the pesky covert and clandestine operations! In the wake of the 9/11 intelligence failure and then the Agency’s acquiescence to — or complicity with — White House bullying over the “imminent Iraq threat,” the CIA’s intelligence mystique has evaporated — again. It has proven deficient precisely because it kept secret information that should have been public. If we knew the classified information known to a few CIA and FBI agents, we might have helped prevent the 9/11 deeds.

Why shouldn’t we know? The terrorists and a few intelligence agents knew. Had we known that the CIA possessed no evidence of Iraqi WMDs, could Bush have convinced the public on the need to go to war?

So, send the CIA to the Library of Congress where its researchers can mingle with the citizens. Imagine a society without hundreds of millions of secrets! Is this crazy? Or just “revisionist” — to quote the President.

SAUL LANDAU’s work also appears on He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. His films on Iraq and Cuba are distributed by Cinema Guild 800-723-5522. He can be reached at:


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.