What is to be Done with the CIA?

[Editors’ Note: This essay is an excerpt from the excellent new book PowerTrip: U.S. Unilateralism and Global Strategy After September 11, part of the Open Media series published by Seven Stories Press. The book is edited by John Feffer and includes essays by writers and scholars from Foreign Policy in Focus, including William Hartung, Martha Honey and Ahmed Rashid.]

One week after the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the press corps, “This isn’t Pearl Harbor.” No, it was worse. Sixty years ago, the United States did not have a director of central intelligence or thirteen intelligence agencies or a combined intelligence budget of more than $30 billion to provide early warning of enemy attack.

There is another significant and telling difference between Pearl Harbor and September 11. Less than two weeks after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a high-level military and civilian commission to determine the causes of the intelligence failure. Following the September attacks, however, President Bush, CIA director George Tenet, and the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees were adamantly opposed to any investigation or postmortem. The president’s failure to appoint a statutory inspector general at the CIA from January 2001 to April 2002 deprived the agency of the one individual who could have started an investigation regardless of the director’s opposition. Overall, the unwillingness to begin a congressional inquiry for nearly eight months increased the suspicion that indicators of an attack had gone unheeded.

The eventual Senate and House intelligence committee investigation of the September 11 failure, which began in June 2002, was mishandled from the beginning. The original staff director for the investigation, former CIA inspector general Britt Snider, had the stature and experience for the job, but he was soon pushed out by former Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Shelby (R-GA), a staunch critic of CIA Director Tenet but never an advocate for reform of the intelligence community. The staff itself is too small and inexperienced to do the job seriously. The August 2002 decision of the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees to order an aggressive FBI investigation of the joint committee, ostensibly to uncover leaks of classified information, marked a blatant violation of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The move was designed to placate the Bush administration, which has consistently established roadblocks to an independent investigation of the intelligence community.

Nevertheless, the preliminary report of the joint intelligence committee has done an excellent job of ferreting out evidence documenting the failures at the CIA and the FBI. The report describes a director of central intelligence who declared a war on terrorism in 1998 but allocated no additional funding or personnel to the task force on terrorism; an intelligence community that never catalogued information on the use of airplanes as weapons; and a CIA that refused to acknowledge the possibility of weaponizing commercial aircraft for terrorism until two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Two days after the report was published, the Bush administration reversed itself and endorsed the creation of a separate, independent investigation to study the intelligence failure.


The failure to anticipate the September 11 attack-and the reluctance to thoroughly investigate this failure-is merely the latest in a long series of CIA blunders. Over the past half century, U.S. presidents have accepted the poor performance of the CIA, presumably because the agency represents a clandestine and relatively inexpensive instrument of American foreign policy. President Dwight Eisenhower employed the CIA in a series of covert actions in Guatemala, Iran, and Cuba that contributed to instability in these countries and complicated U.S. bilateral relations in the Caribbean and Southwest Asia. Subsequent covert operations in Indonesia, Congo, Angola, and Chile followed a similar pattern. In the 1980s, CIA Director William Casey politicized the intelligence analysis of the CIA and orchestrated the Iran-contra scheme that eventually embarrassed the Reagan administration. Deputy Director Robert Gates failed to receive confirmation as CIA director in 1987 because the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence did not believe his denials of knowledge of the Iran-contra affair. Casey and Gates were directly responsible for the CIA’s poor analytical record in dealing with Soviet issues throughout the 1980s, from the failure to foresee the Soviet collapse to the revelation that CIA clandestine officer Aldrich Ames had been a Soviet spy for nearly a decade-the greatest intelligence failure in the history of the agency until the terrorist attacks in 2001.

The performance of the intelligence community did not improve in the 1990s. When the CIA missed India’s underground nuclear testing in 1998, Tenet stated, “We didn’t have a clue.” This failure to monitor Indian testing and Tenet’s inexplicable testimony that the CIA could not guarantee verification of the treaty led to the Senate’s unwillingness to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The CIA also failed to anticipate the third-stage capability of North Korea’s Taepodong missile, which was tested in August 1998, leading to bipartisan calls in the United States for more funding for national missile defense and Japanese suspension of talks to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea.139 Since 1998, CIA analysis of Third World missile programs has taken on a worst-case flavor, exaggerating the national security threat to the United States and politicizing the intelligence data in the process.

The CIA has been particularly weak on the terrorism issue. In 1986, Casey and Gates created the conceptually flawed Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC). They believed that the Soviet Union was responsible for every act of international terrorism (it wasn’t), that intelligence analysts and secret agents should work together in one office (they shouldn’t), and that the CIA and other intelligence agencies would share sensitive information (they didn’t). The CIA and FBI provided no warning of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000. Presumably there were intelligence successes during this period that may have prevented other acts of terrorism. Nevertheless, the CTC never understood the connection between Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the coordinator of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, and the al-Qaeda organization until it was too late. And the CTC expected an attack abroad, not at home.

The September 11 attack exposed the inability of analysts and agents to perform strategic analysis, challenge flawed assumptions, and share sensitive secrets. No agency in the intelligence community could imagine a terrorist operation conducted inside the United States, using commercial airplanes as weapons, although al-Qaeda had planned such operations in the mid-1990s in Europe and Asia. The CIA was tracking al-Qaeda operatives but never placed them on the immigration service watch list; the FBI failed to track Arab men attending flight schools who were behaving in a suspicious fashion. Nevertheless, the Congressional Research Service and University of Pennsylvania professor of political science Stephen Gale did anticipate hijacking of commercial aircraft and warned both the CIA and the Department of Transportation.

Since September 11, the Bush administration’s global policy of unilateralism has involved the CIA in controversial covert operations, including political assassinations, despite the ban since 1975 on such actions by presidential executive order. U.S. unilateralism and fear of the CIA are major components of the anti-Americanism that is intensifying in Europe, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. The current CIA director, George Tenet, is serving the policy interests of the Bush administration in other ways as well, resorting to worst-case analysis to describe the threats that confront the United States in order to justify the deployment of a national missile defense and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of U.S. arms control policy since 1972. Without new data, CIA analysts have begun asserting that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are moving closer to a nuclear capability that would threaten the United States. The administration’s pressure on the CIA to produce intelligence data to justify a war against Iraq will lead to greater politicization of intelligence, and the emphasis on preemptive attack will lead to dubious demands on the CIA to produce intelligence justification for warfare. Tenet’s unprecedented diplomatic role in the Middle East peace process revives the suspicion that a CIA director has put the nation’s strategic intelligence at the service of a political agenda. His intense involvement with both Palestinian and Israeli security forces places him at the center of the policy process in the Middle East and compromises the collection of unbiased intelligence.


One reason for the consistent failures of the intelligence community is the organizational overload at both the CIA and FBI. The CIA has an operational mission to collect human intelligence and analyze and publish national intelligence estimates. It is also responsible for covert action. The agency cannot perform both missions well. The FBI also suffers from a bipolar mission. Its traditional law enforcement mission involves reacting to crimes that have already occurred. Its counterterrorism mission, by contrast, requires a proactive role-ferreting out threats to national security before they occur. Walter Lippmann reminded us seventy years ago that it is essential to “separate as absolutely as it is possible to do so the staff which executes from the staff which investigates.”

Turf issues abound. The protection of “sources and methods” has been an obstacle to information sharing, with the CIA and the FBI having a long history of poor communication. As critical, intelligence agencies and the Pentagon often lock horns. The director of central intelligence (DCI) is responsible for foreign intelligence but lacks control and authority over 90 percent of the intelligence community, including the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which are staffed and funded by the Department of Defense. The priorities of the DCI and those of the Pentagon are quite different. Previous DCIs, particularly Gates and John Deutch, harmed the CIA by de-emphasizing strategic intelligence for policy makers and catering instead to the tactical demands of the Pentagon. The CIA produced fewer intelligence assessments that dealt with strategic matters and emphasized instead intelligence support for the war fighter. Gates ended CIA analysis on key order-of-battle issues in order to avoid tendentious analytical struggles with the Pentagon; Deutch’s creation of NIMA at the Department of Defense enabled the Pentagon to be the sole interpreter of satellite photography. The Pentagon uses imagery analysis to justify the defense budget, to gauge the likelihood of military conflict around the world, and to verify arms control agreements. In creating NIMA, Deutch abolished the CIA’s Office of Imagery Analysis and the joint Department of Defense­CIA National Photographic Interpretation Center, which often challenged the analytical views of the Pentagon. Worst of all, the Bush administration has referred to a “marriage” between the Pentagon and the CIA, which suggests that intelligence continues to be subordinated to Pentagon priorities. The CIA’s worst-case analysis is being used to justify the highest peacetime increases in defense spending since the record-level hikes during the Reagan administration.

The CIA’s second major mission, covert action, remains a dangerously unregulated activity. There are no political and ethical guidelines delineating when to engage in covert action, and previous covert actions have harmed U.S. strategic interests, placing on the CIA payroll such criminals as Panama’s General Manuel Noriega, Guatemala’s Colonel Julio Alpirez, Peru’s intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, and Chile’s General Manuel Contreras. Although President Bush, like every other president since Gerald Ford, has signed an executive order banning political assassination, exceptions have been made in the covert pursuit of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and former Afghanistan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-both of whom also, ironically, received CIA assistance in the 1980s. In November 2002, the CIA killed six al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, an action immediately condemned by Amnesty International as a violation of international law prohibiting summary executions.

In 1998, the United States and the CIA used the cover of the UN and the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to conduct a secret operation to spy on Iraqi military communications as part of a covert action to topple Saddam Hussein. Neither the UN nor UNSCOM had authorized the U.S. surveillance, which Saddam Hussein cited as justification for expelling the UN monitors. As a result, the United States and the UN lost its most successful program to monitor and verify Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological programs, compromising the credibility of multilateral inspection of weapons of mass destruction. In that same year, the CIA produced spurious intelligence data to justify the U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, one of the few countries willing to help the Clinton administration arrest Osama bin Laden.

Finally, a comparison of the CIA and the State Department reveals skewed U.S. priorities. Today, the CIA has approximately sixteen thousand employees, more than four times the number at the State Department, and the intelligence community budget is ten times that of the State Department. As a result of cutbacks, the State Department has had to close important posts in South America, the Balkans, Southwest Asia, and Africa, and has had to post political amateurs with deep pockets to key ambassadorships. It is no wonder that the role of the State Department has significantly diminished in such key functional areas as arms control and disarmament and such key regional areas as the Middle East and South Asia. The CIA, meanwhile, doesn’t need so many resources. One of the CIA’s first directors, Allen Dulles, emphasized that “the bulk of intelligence can be obtained through overt channels” and that if the agency got to be a “great big octopus it would not function well.”


What the CIA and the intelligence community should be, what it should do, and what it should prepare to do is less clear now than at any time since the beginning of the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War, the need to count and characterize Soviet weapons systems and the search for indications of surprise attack focused the efforts of the CIA. These goals disappeared with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Major steps must be taken to design an intelligence infrastructure to deal with terrorism, the major security threat in the twenty-first century. The ongoing contentious debate over the proposed new Department of Homeland Security masks the far greater need to reform the intelligence community. Such reforms include demilitarizing the intelligence community, resolution of key turf issues, and reform of covert operations.

Retired general Brent Scowcroft has conducted a comprehensive review of the intelligence community for President Bush and favors transferring budgetary and collection authority from the Pentagon to a new office that reports directly to the DCI.144 These agencies include NSA, which conducts worldwide electronic eavesdropping; NRO, which designs spy satellites; and NIMA, which analyzes satellite pictures and data and produces maps.145 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opposes this transfer and has created a new position of undersecretary of defense for intelligence to preempt such reform. Congressional approval of this new position would preserve the status quo and close the narrow window of opportunity for more extensive reform proposals under consideration by the joint intelligence committees of the House and Senate.

It is crucial that the CIA strengthen links across the intelligence community in order to share intelligence. Unfortunately, the agency places too much emphasis on the compartmentalization of intelligence and the “need to know,” which are obstacles to intelligence sharing. The failures at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the terrorist attacks in 2001 could have been prevented with genuine sharing of sensitive intelligence information. But this information tends to move vertically within each of the thirteen intelligence agencies instead of horizontally across them. The FBI and the CIA have never been effective in sharing information with each other or with such key agencies as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Aviation Agency, the Border Guards, and the Coast Guard, which will be on the front lines in the war against terrorism. There is no guarantee that the CIA and FBI will share raw reporting on terrorism with the new Office of Homeland Security.

To minimize the politicization of intelligence work, covert operations and intelligence gathering should be separated. The CIA’s directorate of operations is responsible for clandestine activities. Relying on secrecy, hierarchy, and the strict enforcement of information on a need-to-know basis, it is involved in the policy-making process. The directorate of intelligence, on the other hand, helps set the context for people who formulate policy, but it should not be involved in the making of policy. The FBI should likewise be split into two agencies, with a domestic counterterrorism service reporting directly to the director of central intelligence.

The Bush administration and Congress have responded in classic bureaucratic fashion to the September 11 failure, throwing lots of money at the problem to find a solution. The defense budget for 2003 will be close to $400 billion, an increase of nearly 30 percent since 2000. The intelligence budget will increase by 20 percent in 2003, climbing to more than $35 billion. The defense budget protects the current force structure and ongoing weapons modernization programs, and assigns top priority to deploying a national missile defense. Most of the intelligence budget pays for collection resources-including a profusion of electronic data and images from planes, ships, ground stations, and satellites, along with clandestine human intelligence collection. These increases have little to do with countering terrorism and are reminiscent of President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex in 1961.

The intelligence community, particularly the CIA, faces a situation comparable to that of fifty-five years ago, when President Harry S. Truman created the CIA and the National Security Council. As in 1947­48, the international environment has now been recast, the threats have been altered, and as a result the institutions created to fight the Cold War must be redesigned. If steps are not taken to improve the intelligence community, we can certainly expect more terrorist operations against the United States.

MEL GOODMAN has taught national security issues at the National War College, Johns Hopkins and the American University. He is an analyst at the Center for International Policty. He can be reached at: goodmanm@ndu.edu


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism, and Whistleblower at the CIA: An Insider’s Account of the Politics of Intelligence.  His forthcoming book is American Carnage: Donald Trump’s War on Intelligence.  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.