What to do with the CIA

I think Amy Zegart goes beyond the evidence about the current value of the CIA, even though I would not favor abolishing it per se. I would favor making it prove the value of its functions in the context of national security resource allocation, and let certain functions wither away if they cannot be demonstrated to be valuable. I would also create multiple competing centers within the intelligence community, opening up the system to innovation.

Amy Zegart’s black and white arguments for preserving the CIA strike me as anachronistic and as begging the question of whether the CIA does its unique missions well.

In general I don’t think much is achieved by reorganization, and “abolishing the CIA” would prompt a political bloodbath, and so I would not be particularly in favor of abolishing the CIA. There are definitely some unique capabilities within CIA that should be saved.

I offer the following with some caution, because as is commonly suggested, the CIA’s successes may still be secret while its failures often become common knowledge. But I’m not sure anyone at CIA or elsewhere really understands its proper role in the “intelligence community” where the old “Director of Central Intelligence” role of the CIA director as head of the intelligence community has been taken over by the Director of National Intelligence. That is why this terrain needs to be reviewed in a classified fashion by a body responsible primarily to the president that is offline from current operations. (I would have it report through White House Counsel Greg Craig rather than through former CIA deputy director John Brennan who is now the White House Intelligence chief, through the DNI, or even through the NSC.).

Responses to Amy’s arguments in turn at the Jump:

1) Looking higher for culprits. Yes the CIA should not be blamed for the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal and Tenet’s craven leadership and Condi Rice’s complicity. But we ended up where we did with interrogation in part because the CIA really had no internal capacity or expertise in dealing with prisoners or interrogation. FBI did, but CIA seems to have insisted on taking this role for itself. This was bureaucratic politics at its worst. There was no glory for the CIA here, and the situation exposed its prior weakness. As of now it appears that both the military and the FBI have more expertise and capacity in legal interrogation than the CIA. Extraordinary rendition (and its connotation of delegating torture to others) is another blight on the CIA record that has yet to be fully expunged. None of this record is an argument that the CIA has either unique capabilities or a culture that should be preserved.

2) Covert Ops take multiple forms and occur in a variety of contexts, not all of which can be done by the Pentagon. Since the Soviet Union no longer exists, I am less than convinced by Amy’s argument based on our intervention in Afghanistan. If we are now to conduct acts of war I would like them to be authorized by the Congress. The Cold War, with its nuclear standoff, was a little different. In our case I do not think we would have distinguished our response to Soviet covert ops based on whether it was KGB or GRU (military intelligence) that was the operational authority. The Pentagon’s special operating forces are trained and equipped for liaison roles with other military forces as well as for lethal action. The record of CIA support for mercenary warriors, from Vietnam through the Congo and the Bay of Pigs to the Contras was not so successful in military, political, and other terms that it should get uncritical support. It would be appropriate to do a roles and missions review between CIA and Pentagon to determine what scenarios really demand CIA as opposed to Pentagon activity and whether the CIA is really good enough at this mission so that the value of “deniability” outweighs the ham-handedness of the typical CIA effort. I think there is a strong presumption that paramilitary operations and their support should be a military function. Remember that CIA selected only one target during the bombing of Serbia — what turned out to be the Chinese embassy, and the CIA also counter-factually designated the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant as a Bin Laden chemical warfare facility when it in fact supplied many of the drugs available in the Sudan. Having the CIA perform military functions is not an obvious recipe for success.

Now clandestine operations is a much broader category than paramilitary operations — for example including “running” spies and facilitating access to technical intelligence, infiltrating terrorist networks, and other roles. But so far as we know the CIA has never had any success in infiltrating a terrorist network.

3) Amy argues that we need a “central” intelligence agency and the the CIA is it. The CIA is not the “central” agency it was a few years ago. The DCI no longer has the role of managing the intelligence community (that is the role of the DNI). Intelligence in key mission areas is brought together not by the CIA but by ODNI “mission management centers” such as the National Counter Terrorism Center or the National Counter-Proliferation Center. The National Intelligence Estimates, documents that present community-wide judgments, are produced by the National Intelligence Council, which has also moved to ODNI. Having competing sources of analysis is good, and depending who the Secretary of State is in the future, one might regret moving the center of gravity of intelligence analysis so close to policy, but “centrality” is no longer an obvious justification for the CIA. (CIA analysts were useful during Vietnam and during Desert Storm in providing more accurate accounts of the effects of U.S. military operations, and similar distance from our negotiating strategies may also help them produce honest appraisals of diplomatic options.)

4) The CIA indeed has the mission of being our premier humint agency. But recent scandals (a station chief videotaping his date-rapes of local Muslim women) and public accounts of the vacuity of life under non-official cover cast doubt on its professionalism and effectiveness. Moreover, the whole tripartite distinction between collection, analysis, and policy is mistaken and needs to be reconceptualized.

When we look to recent leaders of the CIA to see whether they are up to this sophisticated task, what do we see? We see, for example, Michael Scheuer foaming at the mouth, arguing from an unrealistic hypothetical, and calling President Obama a “Jacobin.” (He can’t possibly know anything of the French Revolution or about Barack Obama to use the term in this manner.) This from the former head of the Bin Laden task force. No wonder we didn’t catch Bin Laden. Seriously, is this the sort of cool-headed sophistication that one wants in a central intelligence agency?. Obviously not. His former colleagues should ask him to shut up before he further damages the CIA’s reputation.

I recently read journalist John Diamond’s 2008 book, The CIA and the Culture of Failure. It was published by Stanford University Press, with jacket blurbs by former SASC Chairman Sam Nunn, former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, sometime McCain advisor and CSIS fellow Tony Cordesman, and someone from the National Defense University. High praise from the establishment. Diamond’s thesis seems to be that failure in the sense of false predictions is inevitable because of the ambiguity in intelligence information, and that a political cycle sets in as a result that breeds mistrust between the CIA, its political masters, and the public. Essentially perceived failure leads to politicization and timidity which lead to more failure.

But this thesis has two defects. First, it falsely assumes that intelligence analysis cannot bring the boundary between what is known and what is judgment to the attention of policy makers. With more rigor there would be no cause for the cycle to start in the first place. Second, there is sort of a background assumption of a previous golden age of intelligence where the CIA was more competent. Though there have been individual flashes of brilliance in particular CIA analyses, and CIA analysts do know quite a large number of relevant facts, the ability to link intelligence judgment to policy consideration has been sorely lacking since the CIA’s inception. The most likely hypothesis is that, outside of certain technical intelligence coups, the CIA has not produced anything nearly as valuable of the billions spent on it, at least not since the early days of the high-altitude and satellite reconnaissance (and these are no longer a CIA responsibility).

Serious reform appears to be needed, and probably part of this reform would require creating competing centers that would integrate operations and analysis, with resources shifts rewarding success over time, rather than trying to achieve a top-down reform of the whole institution at once.