The CIA’s Failures

The CIA’s Failures

The history of American intelligence-gathering is rife with incompetence, dysfunction and contempt toward legislative oversight.


On February 14 Thomas Fingar, chief analyst of the eighteen-agency US intelligence community, gave a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Not the most public of public servants, Fingar, a longtime intelligence analyst, stepped out of the shadows before a respectful audience to defend his much-maligned colleagues. “You want it real bad, you sometimes get it real bad. And the Iraq WMD estimate falls in that category,” Fingar said. He was referring to the dismal measure by which CIA analysis is now judged: the calamitous ninety-three-page National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that the intelligence community produced in October 2002. “It was requested. We were given a two-week period in which to produce it. And it was bad. It was really bad…. The percentage of analysts who participated in the production of that hurry-up, get-it-out-the-door-in-two-weeks product was tiny compared to the larger set, all of whom were tarred with the same brush of incompetence.”

More notable than the aggrieved tone of Fingar’s address was its extremely selective account of the events leading up to the creation of that infamous NIE. In mid-2002, Bob Graham, the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, received classified briefings on Iraq from then-CIA Director George Tenet. Behind closed doors, Tenet presented a much less alarming picture of Iraq than the one George W. Bush gave the public. But Graham, concerned about an impending push from the White House to authorize war, soon learned the Bush Administration had not ordered the CIA to prepare an NIE on Iraq, indicating to him that the Administration’s position on Iraq was not guided by the intelligence. Invoking rarely used senatorial authority, Graham formally requested an NIE–before the war vote. If Graham was guilty of anything, it was not hostility to CIA analysts, as Fingar insinuated, but suspicion of White House manipulation of intelligence, and CIA complicity. As Graham explained several years later in a Washington Post op-ed, “Particular skepticism was raised” by the NIE “about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to [Saddam] Hussein’s will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.” What’s more, “Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States’ removing Hussein, by force if necessary.” To save the intelligence community from public embarrassment in the face of such revelations, lies like Fingar’s have been, since the creation of the modern intelligence apparatus, a cost of doing business.

Fingar, incidentally, is one of the intelligence community’s brightest analytical lights. He has a sterling reputation for integrity. During the NIE process in 2002, he was second-in-command of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as INR. A relative backwater with a laughably small slice of the $50 billion annual intelligence budget, INR is the subject of consistent disrespect from the CIA. Yet INR has perhaps the best analytic record of any component of the community. Fingar did not need to say in San Francisco what intelligence observers have known for years: his old shop was the only agency that dissented from the 2002 NIE’s consensus that Saddam was building a nuclear bomb.

Indeed, INR is a story of what might have been. Harry Truman, who presided over the creation of the modern US intelligence apparatus, famously said that what he sought was a secret newspaper, something that would divine the hidden agendas and developments of mysterious foreign actors in the dawning cold war. This is what, essentially, INR produces. But what Truman got was something more suited to what his cold war policies required: a sprawling apparatus devoted to covert action, subterfuge, disinformation and lawlessness. Once upon a time, the agency was candid about what it needed to be. “Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply,” wrote Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in a secret 1954 report for Dwight D. Eisenhower about revamping the CIA’s covert actions. “We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.”

The CIA got its amorality, as a Senate panel reminded us June 17 when it revealed a pungent piece of advice delivered by a CIA lawyer in 2002 to officials at Guantánamo Bay curious about state-of-the-art interrogation methods: “If the detainee dies,” said Jonathan Fredman of the CIA’s counterterrorist center, “then you’re doing it wrong.” But what the agency never acquired was competence. Its history is one of profound failure in two respects: first, operational failure, as its efforts at pulling the puppet strings of the world have usually ended up garroting its allies; second, the agency, fearful above all else of dismemberment by politicians outraged by its appalling track record, has lied with pathological consistency to Presidents and Congresses about its failed missions. An attempt to bump off the Syrian leadership in 1957 resulted in the interrogation and exposure of the CIA’s Damascus chief, Roger Stone, within weeks. The agency fooled itself into believing a ragtag band of counterrevolutionaries could topple Fidel Castro in 1961, and followed up its disaster with years of aborted assassination attempts. A fear that the Iraqi coup of Nuri Said in 1958 would give the Soviets access to the Middle East’s oil bounty led CIA area chief James Critchfield to sponsor a countercoup by an up-and-coming political force called the Baath Party.

It is not enough, however, to focus on the performance of the CIA or its partner agencies, as Fingar rightfully suggested. The CIA is what it is–an unaccountable, dysfunctional and occasionally amoral entity–because America is what it is. If the CIA can’t understand foreign cultures, it’s because America does not educate its citizens to understand foreign cultures. If the CIA can’t see the future, it’s because America, despite its imperial pretenses, isn’t omniscient. If the CIA can’t control the course of foreign events, it’s because America is ambivalent about its status as a superpower. To be shrill about it, the CIA is both a symptom and an accelerant of American imperialism. As several recent books make clear, for all the commissions about reforming the intelligence community, nothing about the CIA will change until America gets out of the empire business. What’s worse is the inconvenient truth that as long as imperial America remains, to dismember or destroy the CIA will only strengthen the fortunes of right-wing militarists within American politics.

From the beginning of the cold war, a consensus grew within the Truman Administration–entirely in secret–that success in shouldering the United States’ newly assumed hegemonic responsibilities required a secret agency. The agency rose out of the ashes of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a ramshackle but romantic gentlemen’s covert-action club assembled by Franklin Roosevelt to perform the dirty work of winning World War II. Truman didn’t want to institutionalize the OSS for the cold war, yet the only people with experience in the shadows to staff the espionage organization he wanted were OSS veterans, and they quickly took charge of the nascent agency. These unsentimental elitists did not wait for Congress to authorize such an entity through legislation, since they were used to simply taking the money they needed and doing as they pleased. State Department appropriations became slush funds to finance disinformation efforts, bribe foreign officials and pay for three-martini lunches in European capitals. By the time Congress passed an act creating the CIA in 1949, the agency had already become a playground for paranoid alcoholics like Frank Wisner and James Jesus Angleton to tinker with the US-Soviet balance in Europe. The only ironclad provision in the agency’s deliberately vague charter was that it could not spy on US citizens domestically. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to violate that prohibition.

The CIA’s successes were meager. After numerous “missteps”–which, in practice, meant getting local proxies killed–the CIA managed to oust Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala and Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran. Perhaps the agency’s most competent director, Richard Helms, kept the criminally insane Angleton on as head of counterintelligence because he stopped the Soviets from penetrating the agency’s highest levels. Meanwhile, Angleton told nearly every secret the agency had about its European assets to his drinking buddy, the Soviet agent Kim Philby. To call the CIA comically incompetent in its early years would be to diminish the considerable achievements of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In 1950 William Wolf Weisband, an employee in the CIA’s cryptanalysis division whose job was to translate intercepted Soviet communications, gave the agency’s code-breaking secrets to the USSR. The catastrophe had more than one fateful consequence: in addition to what an official history later called “perhaps the most significant intelligence loss in U.S. history,” it led to the creation of the National Security Agency, which under George W. Bush implemented a constellation of illegal, unconstitutional programs for warrantless domestic surveillance. It should be clear that even at that early date, CIA analysis was a sideshow to the much sexier realm of covert action.

Men like Wisner and Helms knew that public exposure of the agency’s failures would mean the agency’s end. Their solution, and that of their colleagues and successors, was to lie. In 1961 Johnson toured the CIA station in Berlin. The Berlin chief, Bill Graver, wowed the Vice President with stories about how many East Germans, Czechs and Poles, military officers and civilians, were snitching on the Soviet empire. “However, if you knew what we had,” recalled Graver’s subordinate Haviland Smith, “you knew that the penetration of the Polish military mission was the guy who sold newspapers on the corner,” not the roster of well-placed finks peddled to a starry-eyed LBJ. The only thing more routine than lying to Congress was ignoring it. Helms, as luminous a star as the CIA ever produced, was eventually convicted of lying to Congress under oath.

All this and more is recounted in Legacy of Ashes, a history of the agency written by New York Times reporter Tim Weiner. It is not hyperbolic to say that Weiner’s book is the greatest ever written about the CIA. Weiner combed through mountains of declassified material and tracked down agency veterans at all levels to produce a complex, subtle and beautifully written history. The CIA paid Weiner the ultimate inadvertent compliment by issuing a statement attempting to rebut him: “Backed by selective citations, sweeping assertions, and a fascination with the negative, Weiner overlooks, minimizes, or distorts agency achievements.” If a subsequent writer produces a book about the CIA half as insightful, thorough or penetrating, he or she can be proud of the achievement.

As acerbic as his history is, Weiner is far from being an enemy of the agency; rather, he writes as a reformist, determined to bolster American power. “I hope [this book] may serve as a warning,” he declares. “No republic in history has lasted longer than three hundred years, and this nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world. That was once the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Weiner is among the most respected intelligence reporters in the country, and his diligence and expertise make him the rare journalist who deserves his glowing reputation. During the past few months, critics have been trying to tarnish it. As Congressional Quarterly‘s national security editor, Jeff Stein, discovered, attacks on Weiner’s methods have bubbled up in “specialist journals, on the Web and in a flurry of e-mail among historians and investigative reporters.” The critics–some of whom are affiliated with the agency–allege errors of fact; Weiner concedes nothing and countercharges that it’s his detractors who have the facts wrong. “I think there is some fact mangling going on here,” Weiner told Stein, “and I don’t think I’m the one mangling.”

Whatever the resolution of the debate over Legacy of Ashes, Melvin Goodman offers something different: Failure of Intelligence is an elegy for the agency he worked for as an analyst for three decades. Goodman serves a particular function to Washington national security reporters and CIA officials: he acts as an intermediary to pass messages between active-duty colleagues, who are not authorized to speak with the press without official permission, and journalists seeking to discover the agency’s inner workings. When interviewing retired CIA officials, it can often be difficult to determine how much information comes from inside Langley and how much comes from the ex-officials. (To be clear: I have never spoken with Goodman.) Experienced reporters typically start by speaking with ex-officials to familiarize themselves with the intelligence community and then work their way into Langley.

Goodman believes the ravages of the Bush Administration have crippled the CIA–perhaps permanently. His primary focus is on CIA analysis. During the past eight years, the Administration has deliberately undermined the agency’s independence, demanding that it produce not intelligence but pretexts for the Administration’s agenda. It can be fairly objected that prior administrations exerted control over intelligence. But never in the nation’s history–not even under Nixon–has an administration undermined the legitimacy of intelligence analysis. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, neoconservative Pentagon official Douglas Feith directed subordinates to comb through the CIA’s raw intelligence on Iraq and Al Qaeda until they compiled enough data to make the fallacious argument that Saddam Hussein was allied with Osama bin Laden. They presented their findings to Tenet and the White House–contending to the White House in a classified briefing that the CIA’s expert analysis refuting any such connection should be dismissed out of hand. Feith had perfected the “dreamwork” of Reagan-era foreign policy, “a dreamwork devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer,” as Joan Didion described it in Salvador.

In February 2007, the Pentagon’s inspector general released a report on the activities of Feith’s constellation of intelligence efforts, collectively known as the Office of Special Plans. It stopped short of concluding that Feith had broken the law but called his activities “inappropriate.” Yet the damage was done, on several fronts. Most obvious, Feith and his coterie helped drive the country into a war under false pretexts. Second, they allowed unscrupulous officials to misrepresent the judgment of the intelligence community. Long after the CIA and the FBI rejected the contention that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, Cheney, assisted by the disinformation produced by the Office of Special Plans, presented the evidence of the refuted meeting as ambiguous. The press, unable to adjudicate between truth and falsity because of the Vice President’s manipulations, recycled the story as Cheney intended.

But the most insidious effect of the Pentagon initiative was within the CIA. Top agency officials, most importantly Tenet, a Clinton Administration holdover, chose loyalty to Bush over their duty to the CIA’s independence. All CIA directors, whom the President appoints, have to perform the delicate balancing act of pleasing the President and protecting the agency, but some keep their footing better than others. Helms stopped Nixon from effectively gelding the politically inconvenient analysis directorate, for instance. During the run-up to the Iraq War, intelligence reporters could not talk to intelligence analysts on background without hearing how conformity to Administration policy was the order of the day at Langley. (Bucking a generally supine press corps, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post and Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, then working for Knight Ridder, showed more backbone than most, myself included.) Egregiously, Deputy Director for Intelligence Jamie Miscik removed the agency’s Mideast analysts from an agency assessment of the purported Saddam-Al Qaeda link. She did so because those analysts considered the proposition unsupported by the facts. The resulting document, “Iraq and al-Qaeda: Interpreting a Murky Relationship,” was written, she later told the Senate, to be “purposefully aggressive”–which is to say, to be a lie. Even so, the document did not satisfy Feith.

Yet the agency was clawing for self-preservation during a delicate moment. The 9/11 attacks temporarily made Bush a political giant. It took years before the press absorbed, thanks to the 9/11 Commission, that the CIA had given strategic warning to the White House in the summer of 2001 that there would be a terrorist attack. In the meantime, the standard line in the media–which Bush was eager to exploit–was that 9/11 was an intelligence failure. Tenet, a consummate careerist, decided to let the White House have its way with the Iraq intelligence. Tenet’s successor, a Bush loyalist named Porter Goss, was even worse: he not only purged officials deemed politically suspect but also informed the agency in an e-mail shortly after Bush’s re-election that its job was to “support the administration and its policies in our work.” It is hard to dismiss Goodman’s conclusion that the agency “no longer knows how to provide truth to power and lacks the courage to do so.”

Institutionally, the CIA has never been weaker. In late 2004, Congress finally passed a law separating the head of the intelligence community from the CIA, yet the law did nothing to safeguard the community’s independence. The current head of US intelligence, retired Adm. Mike McConnell, has repeatedly misrepresented the intelligence community’s warrantless domestic surveillance activities to Congress in order to advance the Administration’s goal of removing the judicial branch from the surveillance process. McConnell has become Bush’s chief lobbyist for surveillance on Capitol Hill. He has untruthfully told Congress that an Administration-backed bill allowing unfettered surveillance thwarted a terrorist plot in Germany. He constructed a bizarre and untrue story that cumbersome judicial processes delayed surveillance on an Iraqi insurgent cell that kidnapped US soldiers, when in fact the delay was attributable to bureaucratic dithering at the Justice Department and NSA. On top of that, he and the CIA’s current director, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, have insisted on Bush’s right to direct the CIA to torture people. McConnell has agreed that waterboarding–a horrifying process that either simulates or induces drowning–would be torture if applied to him, but only because of his delicate sinuses.

It is tempting to view the agency’s record of failure and conclude that it’s time to dismember the CIA and start again. The loudest proponents of this view come from within the neoconservative movement: Feith, ex-CIA Director Jim Woolsey and Richard Perle, to name a few. They desire two structural changes: to destroy, finally, agency analysis and to “unleash” covert action. In 1976 George H.W. Bush, then the CIA’s director, acquiesced to a right-wing effort known as Team B, wherein conservative analysts replaced the CIA’s judgments on the Soviet Union with their own conviction that Soviet power was robust and expanding. (Needless to say, Team B was wrong.) Abbot Smith, director of the Office of National Estimates under Nixon, told a CIA oral history, “I look upon that as almost a turning point from which everything went down.” To rid the agency of its analytical function is to remove the only institutional obstacle to the triumph of Feith’s dreamwork, wherein the facts must be tweaked to fit the policy. It would represent the ultimate defeat of the intelligence community’s founding purpose.

Similarly, to blame the CIA for its record of operational failures is to miss the point. Covert action is a narcotic for Presidents, offering the illusory hope that they can shape the course of history merely by ordering a little cash moved around or a general assassinated or a labor union infiltrated, all without their fingerprints ever being detected. And like a narcotic, it is difficult to emerge from the abyss of covert action when in the clutches of its exhilarating high. The Bay of Pigs fiasco did not dissuade the Kennedy Administration from attempting to eliminate Castro. Instead, it led the CIA deep within the zone of amorality that Gen. Jimmy Doolittle championed back in 1954, as operatives sought help from underworld figures to plot the killing of a foreign leader. Liberal icon Robert F. Kennedy practically ran a Murder Incorporated branch out of his Justice Department office.

The most underappreciated fact about the CIA is that, for all the loose talk about preserving the agency’s analytic independence, when it comes to covert action, the CIA does only what administrations tell it to do. If it surpasses the boundaries of what politicians expect it to do, that is only because those politicians do not want to know the actual costs of their desired goals–assassination, torture and kidnapping, to name a few. A case in point surrounds José Rodriguez, the former deputy director of operations who in 2005 ordered the destruction of videotaped evidence of brutal interrogations conducted by agency officials on two members of Al Qaeda in CIA custody. Rodriguez is the subject of a criminal investigation. The interrogators in question may eventually be as well. Yet the men who in 2002 ordered the CIA to go into the torture business–Bush, Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, David Addington (Cheney’s chief of staff and former legal counsel) and John Yoo (a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department), principally–are not under investigation and, in all likelihood, will never be. The only man convicted of a crime connected to the CIA’s new role as Bush’s torture agency is a CIA contractor named David Passaro, who is serving an eight-year sentence for his role in the death of an Afghan detainee named Abdul Wali.

There are many bureaucratic changes the CIA can make to do its job somewhat better, and Richard Betts and Amy Zegart detail some of them in their new books, Enemies of Intelligence and Spying Blind, respectively. Cultivate better networks of informants around the globe. Don’t think that recruiting Americans of, say, Mideastern descent is a translation or operations panacea. (“A former CIA station chief gave examples of Arab and Latino Americans whose accents and dialects gave them away when they were dispatched to the Middle East or Cuba,” Betts writes. Betts, a former staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has led the attack on Legacy of Ashes.) Harmonize the security-clearance process across the community and in law enforcement, so a CIA official can make sure a Los Angeles police officer can lawfully accept information about a terrorist flying into LAX.

But nothing fundamental will change until America decides to abandon the hegemony business. Covert action is part of the imperial cast of mind: its implicit premise is that America, by virtue of its position of dominance, has the right to recast the world according to its prerogatives. The failures of the CIA are failures, in the final analysis, of the impossible–failures to read people’s minds, predict the future or determine the shape of history. Calls for “strengthening” or “unleashing” the CIA are indicative of this uncritical imperial mind-set and will forever miss the point that the agency’s failures are in fact failures of policy. John McCain is a case study in misdiagnosis. The GOP presidential candidate advocates establishing a “modern day OSS [that] could draw together specialists in unconventional warfare; covert action operators; and experts in anthropology, advertising, and other relevant disciplines.”

Instead, McCain should read a dispatch from thirty-three years ago. In April 1975, Henry Kissinger, in a typical fit of pique, refused to negotiate the entrance of the North Vietnamese into Saigon. Hanoi, as a result, sacked the city. It was up to the CIA’s station chief, Tom Polgar, to send a final cable back to Washington as chaos overtook the South Vietnamese capital. What he wrote served as an epitaph to an American empire that did not die because of mere intellectual bankruptcy: “This will be final message from Saigon Station…. It has been a long fight and we have lost…. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Let us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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