Why the CIA will Always be a Costly Flop


The resignation of both the director and an important deputy director of any large organization is noteworthy, but when that organization is the CIA we have an event of global interest.

Several official, and likely-embarrassing, reports concerning CIA activities–including one dealing with the Agency’s generous estimates of Iraq’s non-existent weapons–are expected to appear soon. The timing of the resignations may well reflect these coming reports.

You might think the men who resigned, Director George Tenet and Deputy Director for Operations James Parvitt, should have been fired long ago. Never mind the nonexistent weapons in Iraq or phony invoices for uranium, the Agency’s failure around the events leading to 9/11 was stunning, but the intelligence business is one of the few where job performance is almost unconnected with keeping your job.

There are many examples, but the incredibly bizarre career of James Angleton, CIA’s Chief of Counterintelligence during the 1960s and into the 1970s, is perhaps the most striking. The activities of Angleton, a man certainly suffering from paranoid delusions, came close to destroying the Agency in the 1960s, but his career didn’t end until William Colby became Director and forced Angleton to resign in 1974. Even then, he was kept on as a consultant, in the typical generosity of an organization with unlimited funds and afraid of revelations by an extremely angry, sick old man.

The disconnect between performance and job in Big Intelligence exists for many reasons, but four key ones are the fear of discrediting or embarrassing the Agency at a time of difficulty, the organizational difficulty of holding particular individuals responsible for bad intelligence, the chummy, old-boy atmosphere that invariably pervades such a vast and privileged bureaucracy, and unavoidably-political nature of all work by Big Intelligence.

These points have been demonstrated many times. The CIA does not appear to have paid a price for its monstrous failings before and after President Kennedy’s assassination (which included no anticipation of an event intimately related to its activities in Cuba and, afterward, acts like Angleton’s destroying important evidence), nor does it appear to have paid for decades of wildly-inaccurate assessments of the Soviet Union’s capacities. Since raw intelligence from many sources is digested and filtered through an elaborate bureaucracy, the second point is virtually axiomatic for Big Intelligence. Kim Philby’s amazing career with Britain’s SIS may be the greatest-ever example of the third point.

John Kerry’s reaction to the resignations provides a perfect example of the political trash dumped time and again at the Agency’s doorstep, “We must reshape our intelligence community for the 21st century and create a new position of ‘director of national intelligence’ with real control of all intelligence personnel and budget.” What do you do with a cheap, gas-bag slogan like that?

I guess Kerry missed the fact that his suggestion closely fits the job description given the Director when President Truman created the CIA half a century ago. Kerry also seems unaware that the CIA has been reshaped and adjusted time after time in its brief history–after the nightmare revelations of the Church Committee, after James Angleton’s reign of terror in counterintelligence, and after Reagan’s election–to little meaningful or lasting effect. It remains the world’s largest bureaucracy for the production of costly flops.

The ancient Greeks gave us many timeless legends and warnings, but the myth of Cassandra, who received both the gift of telling the truth and the curse of not being believed, fixes for all time a fundamental relationship in human affairs.

Governments always feel an irresistible impulse to obtain intelligence. You might call it the God Impulse, wanting to know everything that’s going to affect you, yet governments are condemned by their nature not to want to hear truth on many subjects. That applies just as much to democracies as dictatorships. Government policies are shaped by attitudes, preconceptions, and wishes. When these confront disagreeable facts, the preconceptions generally prevail.

There is also an inherent conflict between the idea of an agency charged with providing facts and the needs of a government which more often than not involve actively hiding or manipulating facts for political goals.

But Big Intelligence is not exactly comparable to Cassandra. It has not been blessed with always knowing the truth, so that after spending frightful amounts of money, it often works feverishly to hide its ignorance and protect its image of godlike knowledge. The cloak of secrecy is used to protect Big Intelligence from embarrassment as much as it is used to protect genuine information.

Big Intelligence shares the same preconceptions as the politicians it serves. After all, its leaders are appointed from a pool of people friendly to a government’s intentions. You do not get people like Ralph Nader appointed to high posts in the CIA. No, you get people like Daddy Bush, always.

If you want a whiff of the unavoidably bureaucratic and political nature of Big Intelligence, go find some of the op-ed pieces written by Robert M. Gates who served as Director from 1991 to 1993. The good old New York Times often published his puff pieces. Gates was a career CIA bureaucrat, I believe the only one ever given the top job. His pieces, bromides expressed in oily institutional prose, are not worth reading except for the sense they convey of a decades-long career of throbbingly-dull, inconclusive reports.

Later, John M. Deutch, an extraordinarily arrogant, plodding academic served as Director. He should have faced trial for taking top-grade secret material home and storing it on a personal computer later shown to have accessed many pornographic Internet sites. Some national security.

On the other end of the scale of Directors, there was a violence-prone thug like William Casey, 1981 to 1987, a throwback to the days of “Wild” Bill Donavon who ran the OSS, World War II forerunner of the CIA. Casey was a good chum of the late Great Communicator and relished the dirty-tricks part of Big Intelligence. He utterly failed in the CIA’s great tasks, from understanding revolutionary developments then occurring in the Soviet Union to knowing enough about the Middle East to prevent Reagan’s disastrous, embarrassing landing and blowing-up of Marines in Lebanon.

Intelligence agencies do succeed at certain kinds of tasks, but they are not necessarily tasks sensible people want done in a free society. The KGB was very effective at keeping the population of Soviet Union watched and intimidated. The FBI in the United States was pretty effective at the same task. Many members of the American government, in both legislative and executive branches, for decades lived in dread of revelations from the special files Director Hoover kept on them. As a part of its defensive arsenal against Hoover, officials at the CIA–the Agency and the FBI fought like wild dogs over every scrap of bone–are reported to have kept salacious items like a Peeping Tom photograph of Mr. Hoover having oral sex with his assistant Clyde Tolson.

The CIA has at times been successful at overthrowing, or contributing to the overthrow of, governments America doesn’t like, even when they were elected, although it often fails here, too, the most notable example being its years of costly, stupid effort to overthrow Castro. The Agency also pays selected politicians, leaders, and parties all over the world both to assist them and compromise them should it become necessary later to apply pressure. The new Prime Minister of Iraq’s so-called independent government is one of these CIA creatures.

Many of the CIA’s most costly operations appear successful when viewed superficially. Its operation in Afghanistan during the 1980s, where it spent billions to help drive out the Soviets, is a good example. Eventually, the Soviets left and were embarrassed by their failure, but if you examine the operation over a longer time-horizon, you see that it was in fact a catastrophic failure.

The truth is, so long as the Soviets held sway in Afghanistan, no one had to worry about terror or instability from the region. The CIA’s “success” gave birth to those very things. With no strategic foresight, the CIA was not greatly concerned about such matters–instead, it was concerned with staging a set of gigantic, deadly frat-boy pranks to embarrass and damage the Soviets. The horrible excesses of the Taleban (the British spelling for those ready to e-mail a correction) owe much to the CIA’s “success.” The Soviets, for all their flaws, always promoted secular government and practices such as women being educated as professionals, and they did this in Afghanistan. Their efforts were swept away by the terrible governments the CIA’s “success” gave the country.

Not only was the Soviet Union already beginning to unravel during those years–again, momentous developments of which the CIA as an institution remained ignorant–but the training, money, arms, and incitement the CIA contributed to Afghan rebels virtually created the groups associated with 9/11. The CIA’s practice of bringing shadowy characters back and forth by the hundreds to the United States on visas American embassies were forced to issue without examination unquestionably helps explain how nineteen suicide-bombers entered the country on legitimate visas. The shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles the CIA supplied wild mountain men to shoot down Soviet helicopters found their way later to various places for attacks on civilian airliners. How’s that for a return on your tax dollar?

Most Americans have little idea how much money is wasted on Big Intelligence. The budgets are, of course, top secret, but, before 9/11, it was a common estimate that the CIA went through $30 billion a year. Of course, the U.S. also maintains an even more-secret, technical outfit called the NSA, various branches of military intelligence (pardon the oxymoron), intelligence sections in the State Department, the FBI (now spreading its tentacles around the globe with offices being established abroad–oh, wouldn’t J. Edgar be happy! He and Clyde might have done weekends in London or Paris), and other lesser-known agencies. After 9/11, we can be sure that the dinner plates of all these agencies were so heaped with extra ladles of gravy, they slopped trails on their way back to the table.

For what America wastes on Big Intelligence, every beat-up classroom in the nation could be re-equipped or replaced over a few years. Were that ever to happen, the world might be blessed by a generation of Americans whose international behavior displayed a notable increase in genuine, effective intelligence.

John Chuckman lives in Canada.