Last weekend’s botched air strikes in Pakistan actually turned out pretty well for a CIA operation. Sure the CIA failed to nail its target — al-Qaeda’s No. 2 man Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri — and a dozen or so civilians were annihilated, but the rockets apparently took out four (or five) foreign terrorists. Maybe the intel the CIA is purchasing from local tribesmen has improved from out-right fabrication to mere goose-chase.
It’s easy to blame the CIA for much of what’s gone wrong militarily and geopolitically in recent times, from Saddam’s elusive nuclear weapons to al-Zawahri’s last-minute dinner plans. But considering that there are — besides the CIA — 14 intelligence agencies, from the National Reconnaissance Office (responsible for satellite programs) to the Defense Intelligence Agency (provides military combat support), how justified are we to pick exclusively on the CIA?
Well, Langley certainly has a lot to answer for. In his new book State of War, James Risen portrays the Central Intelligence Agency as an institutionalized version of the movie Dumb and Dumber. Risen shows how the CIA idiotically gave Iran the blueprints for a nuclear weapon, and provided President George W. Bush pre-war information on Iraq that he — presumably — wanted to hear, instead of what he needed to hear. And that’s just for starters. The CIA also failed to predict the size and force of the insurgency, or to warn about the influx of foreign fighters into post-war Iraq. Indeed, finding a single CIA success story proves more elusive than Iraq’s WMD. A few guys from National Geographic magazine and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution can find the Titanic 10,000 feet under the frozen Atlantic Ocean, but the CIA is unable to find Osama bin Ladin, Ayman al-Zawahri, Mullah Omar, and (after a decade) Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.
In his study of the CIA, Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century, Angelo Codevilla concludes that with a few exceptions U.S. intelligence has “usually failed.” (Granted the CIA is unable to brag about its successes, so we hear only of the failures; so many failures they could — and literally do — fill a book.) The way the CIA bumbled through the Cold War is now legendary; its consistent overestimation of Soviet economic strength and blindness or indifference to Soviet cheating on arms control agreements and Soviet empire-building objectives prolonged the USSR’s collapse by at least a decade. This was complemented by the agency’s inability to predict the fall of the Iron Curtain, or the rise of Islamic fascism — beginning with its utter surprise at the Iranian Revolution and U.S. hostage crisis. All of this has carried over to the present century culminating in 9/11, during which the CIA was — surprise! — out to lunch.
WORSE THAN ITS INCOMPETENCE is the ideology common among many of its analysts. Codevilla paints a CIA dominated by liberal ideas and an America the Bully mindset which have contributed to its bungling (a willingness to trust the USSR at its word being just the most blatant example of liberal naivete). It is easier for such analysts to imagine “that the country one is studying is fundamentally similar to one’s own and hence can be understood in the same terms,” write Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt in Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence. Whereas an analyst devoid of liberal tendencies would have been more likely to see the former Soviet Union and Iraq for what they were: tyrannical regimes that had little in common with the West. David Frum and Richard Perle reach a similar conclusion in An End to Evil: “The CIA’s reports today are colored by similar ideological biases, exacerbated by poor understanding of the region’s culture and a politically correct disinclination to acknowledge unflattering facts about non-Western peoples.”
This sounds almost too perfect, like a scenario created by the screenwriter lovechild of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter: a naive and bumbling CIA run by neocon-hating liberals. And it is quite a stretch from the usual depiction of the CIA: as bloodthirsty assassins trained to kill communist dictators with poison pens, when not training Central American death squads to heave nuns out of helicopters. Yet if one doubts that the liberal ideology has been very much in evidence in the CIA, one has only to peruse the ghastly literature of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group made up of 35 disgruntled, former high-level spooks, including founder and former senior analyst Roy McGovern. When McGovern tells Mother Jones that active members of the intelligence community work with VIPS, Americans are right to wonder what catastrophe awaits them.
THE NEW YORK TIMES‘ David Brooks has another take on CIA ineptitude. The culprit isn’t liberalism, says Brooks, but scientism. In fact, “when it comes to understanding the world’s thugs and menaces, I’d trust the first 40 names in James Carville’s PDA faster than I’d trust a conference-load of game theorists or risk-assessment officers,” says Brooks. In Brooks’ view intelligence is more akin to philosophy than science, therefore you need people, not drones, analyzing and interpreting it:
What kind of scientific framework can explain the rage for suicide bombings, now sweeping the Middle East? What technocratic mentality can really grasp the sadistic monster who was pulled out of the spider hole…? Under Saddam, Iraqi society seems to have been in a state of advanced decomposition, with drastic consequences for its WMD program. How can corruption and madness be understood by analysts in Langley, who have a tendency to impose a false order on reality?
Brooks’s theory would explain why the CIA failed to anticipate seemingly nonrational events like the Iran-Iraq war or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “This false scientism was bad enough during the Cold War…but it is terrible now in the age of terror, because terror is largely nonrational.”
There’s a final explanation. Like all bureaucracies, the CIA is prone to become bloated, sluggish, and risk-averse. Indeed, conservative critics find the overly bureaucratic, overly cautious CIA to be outright hostile to the President’s goals, particularly the War in Iraq. I’m inclined to buy all of these excuses — bureaucracy, scientism and liberalism. But more important I want to know what’s being done about it. Latin America is going over to Leftist-populist leaders. Iran is on the verge of creating nuclear weapons. North Korea seems to be slipping further and further into a paranoid nuclear isolationism. And need I mention the Middle East? In such an atmosphere, the U.S. would probably be better off without a CIA than the one it has now.
Pending substantial reforms, the Bush administration has set out to minimize the damage the CIA can do. A year ago President Bush named the first Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte. The new director coordinates all 15 intelligence agencies, and is principal intelligence adviser to the president and the National Security Council. The administration has sacked George Tenet. And it is sticking to its guns over the NSA’s wiretaps. Oh, and last weekend the CIA was one place-setting away from taking out al-Zawahri. Just maybe there is cause to be optimistic.