Author: By Rupert Cornwell
Why are we asking this now?
The CIA is currently embroiled in two controversies that go to the heart of
the problems surrounding the world’s largest intelligence agency. It is
accused of keeping Congress in the dark about a secret post-9/11 project, on
the orders of the former vice-president Dick Cheney and probably in
violation of the law. Meanwhile the Justice Department is moving towards a
criminal investigation of whether CIA operatives illegally tortured captured
terrorist suspects. A rule of thumb about an intelligence service might be:
the less you hear about it, the better it’s probably doing its job. Instead,
the CIA seems to be eternally in the headlines.
But hasn’t that always been the case?
Indeed. Almost from its inception in 1947, at the start of the Cold War, the
agency has made news. In 1953, it staged the Operation Ajax coup that
overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran (with repercussions
that continue to this day). In 1961 came the humiliating failure of the Bay
of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the most spectacular of many unavailing efforts by
the CIA to get rid of Fidel Castro.
After other abuses were revealed, including the agency’s tangential
involvement in Watergate, the agency’s sins were subjected to an
unprecedented public investigation by the Church Committee, under Senator
Frank Church of Idaho, in the mid-1970s. But that did not prevent further
scandals, notably the 1985/86 Iran-Contra affair, in which the CIA had an
So why doesn’t the CIA work better?
One reason is the historic fragmentation of US intelligence operations. At the
last count, 16 separate government agencies were involved in intelligence.
Of them, the CIA has always been the most important, but formally only
primus inter pares. The consequence was bureaucratic infighting that
severely strained relations with the Pentagon and with the FBI in
particular. The inability of the CIA and the FBI to share information was
one reason why 9/11 went undetected, and although the Intelligence Reform
Act, passed by Congress in 2004, was supposed to address that, it only did
so up to a point.
The Act set up the post of Director of National Intelligence, in overall
charge of all US intelligence. It is, for instance, no longer the CIA but
the DNI who provides the daily intelligence briefing for the President. The
CIA director now reports to the DNI, and the multitude of agencies do seem
to be working together more effectively. But the Act did not address the
CIA’s real problems: the way in which its paramilitary side often operated
outside the law, and its basic competence in its core field of intelligence
How come the CIA has a paramilitary side?
It has been there almost from the outset. In 1948 the agency was specifically
empowered to carry out subversion and sabotage and “support of
indigenous anti-communist movements in threatened countries.” There
have been fiascos (like the Bay of Pigs), and the illegal overthrow of
democratic governments (for example Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973). But
some such operations have been hugely successful ? take the clandestine
support for the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation in the
1980s, which contributed mightily to the subsequent fall of communism in the
Are these operations out of control?
Yes and no. Back in 1947 Dean Acheson, later to become Secretary of State,
said he had “the gravest forebodings” about the fledgling CIA,
warning that no one ? not even the President ? would be in a position to
know what it was doing or to control it. More recently however, especially
during the “war on terror”, the greater risk has seemed the
opposite: that the agency could be a de facto private army for the President
(or in the case of Dick Cheney, for the vice-president). Bypassing Congress
and the Pentagon, it could act as it pleased (and did, by setting up secret
camps abroad, torturing terrorist suspects, or kidnapping them and sending
them for torture elsewhere, even though in some cases the victims were
completely innocent). But you could equally argue the CIA is not
under-regulated, but over-regulated.
Spy agencies in democracies the world over face conflicting pressures. By
definition they work in secret, often in unmentionable matters of national
security. But they must also be publicly accountable. In no democracy is
this tension more institutionalised than in the US ? as this latest affair
involving the former vice-president underlines. On this occasion, Mr Cheney
and the CIA may have broken the law, violating the agency’s duty to “fully
and currently inform” Congress about its activities. But sometimes
oversight by Congress hurts the agency.
In the 1990s, for instance, lawmakers complained that too many unsalubrious
people were on the CIA’s foreign payroll. The agency had to shed many
employees, to the detriment of its operations. More broadly, the constant
threat of public scandal, Congressional meddling, and a rapid turnover in
directors, have badly damaged morale.
What about intelligence-gathering?
Almost by definition you hear more of the mistakes of an intelligence agency
than of its successes ? the bad things that didn’t happen because good prior
intelligence headed them off. Even so, the CIA’s failures are huge. 9/11
happened despite its best efforts. It was wrong about Saddam Hussein’s
non-existent WMD. It was slow to see the economic weakness, and then the
disintegration of the Soviet Union. It missed India’s nuclear test of 1998,
which prompted a series of counter-tests by Pakistan.
How much does it all cost?
The total US intelligence budget is classified, but is reckoned to be in the
region of $40bn. The CIA itself reportedly has 20,000 employees, though that
figure too is classified. In fact the bulk of spending is believed to go on
hi-tech agencies like the National Security Agency, which carries out global
electronic surveillance and eavesdropping, and the National Reconnaissance
Office, which operates reconnaissance satellites.
So is the US just not very good at spying?
There’s surely some truth in that. Unlike, say, Israel (or even Britain), the
US has never had to rely on intelligence for its survival. The US system is
probably too open, while Americans by nature are simply more comfortable
with the quantifiable (numbers, statistics, blanket phone intercepts,
satellite pictures and the like) than with “humint” ? the subtler,
sometimes treacherous, but ultimately even more precious human intelligence
from flesh-and-blood sources, that Washington lacked so conspicuously in
After the Cold War, Richard Helms, one of the most venerated intelligence
professionals in US history (and the only CIA director convicted of lying to
Congress) remarked that “the only remaining superpower doesn’t have
enough interest in what’s going on in the world to organise and run an
espionage service.” The 9/11 attacks have surely dispelled that
insouciance, but perhaps not the underlying mentality.
Why not just abolish it?
Some, notably Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late New York Senator, have urged
precisely that. The US, they argue, would be better off closing down the CIA
and turning its intelligence operations over to the State Department and its
paramilitary side to the Pentagon, ending what they see as little more than
a national embarrassment.
Does the US need the CIA?
Every country needs an agency with “deniability” in order to carry
out its dirty work
*The latest re-organisation of US intelligence must be given time to work
*For all its failings, the CIA has had its share of successes and still
performs a valuable service
The agency has done a great deal wrong and inflicted huge harm to America’s
*It is too large and unwieldy, and more trouble than it’s worth
*It is too easily used by presidents to circumvent the constitution, and
without its independence its real value is lost
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