Don’t Kill the CIA

It was only a matter of time before the torture debate turned on the CIA. Matthew Yglesias has done it, suggesting that we “consider” abolishing the agency. This would be a great idea if it weren’t completely wrong.

It was only a matter of time before the torture debate turned on the CIA. Matthew Yglesias has done it, suggesting that we “consider” abolishing the agency. This would be a great idea if it weren’t completely wrong. Let me suggest just a few reasons why:

1. If you’re looking for culprits, look higher. Interrogation techniques weren’t dreamed up by rogue CIA case officers lacking adult supervision. They were developed, justified, and ordered by senior administration officials.

2. Covert operations cannot just be outsourced to the Pentagon. Most people think covert operations are military operations done secretly. They aren’t. In reality, covert operations include a broad array of activities — supporting political parties, providing technical and economic assistance to foreign governments, even political advising. What makes these activities “covert operations” isn’t the activity, but the covertness: the fact that the US can officially deny involvement. Yes, sometimes “deniability” is a fig leaf. But fig leafs can be useful. The Soviets knew darn well that we were supporting and supplying the Afghan rebels during their occupation. But had that support been done overtly, through the Pentagon, the Soviets could have considered it an act of war.

3. There’s a reason the CIA has the word “Central” in its name. It was created in 1947 to integrate all the disparate pieces of intelligence floating around military intelligence agencies, the State Dept. and the Justice Dept. In 1941, clues to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor were scattered throughout the U.S. government, but no one agency had the job of putting them together. That became CIA’s mission. It may not have performed that mission well, but it’s the best we’ve got.

4. CIA is also the lead agency for human intelligence collection. And let’s face it, human intelligence is more important than ever. In the Cold War, most good intelligence involved counting things like Soviet missiles. Today, good intelligence requires getting inside our enemies’ heads. It doesn’t help much to know how many box cutters or truck bombs al Qaeda owns.

President Obama seems to get what Yglesias does not: he needs the CIA now more than ever. He’s got the fullest plate in modern history, with two wars, one whopper economic crisis, terrorists, nuclear proliferators, and failing states. Intelligence does not predict the future, but it bounds the uncertainty of it to help the president make better decisions. Sometimes the CIA is tragically wrong. Sometimes it’s ugly. But make no mistake: the CIA is vital to protecting American lives and interests.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.