Who Cares What the CIA Thinks?

Instead of complaining about the release of the torture memos, the CIA ought to work on being a decent intelligence service.

That’s not a rhetorical question: despite the phrasing, it is a real one.

Joe Klein reports that in light of the release of the torture memos,

there are real concerns in the intelligence community–and a potential rebellion in the clandestine service, according to one veteran spook I spoke with. The White House was aware of these concerns and I think Obama has taken some steps, in his statement on the release, to ameliorate the problems, but he and Leon Panetta may be facing a serious morale problem and a slew of retirements at a moment when the need for undercover work is extremely urgent, especially in the Iraqi and Af/Pak theaters.

But this assumes that the current CIA has actually been an enormous asset to US national security. And that is anything but sure.

As Tim Weiner has conclusively demonstrated, the CIA has anything but a stellar record over the last, oh, six decades. On virtually every major strategic shift of the postwar era, the CIA has been caught completely flat-footed.

And little wonder: the Agency is simply not very good at what it does. Edward Shirley, a pseudonymous former case officer, reported in the Atlantic Monthly in 1998 that no one on the Iran desk spoke Farsi. No one seemed to notice that there was a problem with agent Aldrich Ames.

Maybe the best thing that could happen is that the CIA would be completely cleaned out, and replaced with a bunch of naive rookies. It might be better than a bunch of naive veterans.

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe the CIA has been quite successful. But it is time that someone provides some evidence for it.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.