Commentary Magazine

What To Do About the CIA

For the second time since it came into being in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency is fighting for its life. Twenty years ago, following revelations by the Church (Senate) and Pike (House) committees of the Agency’s involvement in illegal activities on U.S. territory, such as spying on American citizens opposed to the Vietnam war, there was a clamor for its abolition. The KGB added fuel to this fire by supporting and Financing disinformation purporting to show that the CIA, a painful thorn in its side, was a threat to American democracy. The Agency managed to weather the assault, only to face today an even more daunting challenge to its existence.

The current movement is inspired not by alleged illegal activities, which have not recurred since the mid-1970′s, but by the charge that the CIA has consistently provided the government with faulty assessments and tolerated inexcusable security breaches in its ranks. The main argument against it, however, is that with the collapse of the USSR the Agency has become redundant.

The CIA was indeed founded at the onset of the cold war for the specific purpose of coping with the Communist threat to the United States and forestalling another Pearl Harbor which, especially after the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic device in August 1949, would present the prospect of an incomparably more damaging surprise attack. President Truman created a central intelligence organization to collect and analyze information obtained by the government’s separate intelligence services. He did so despite protests that he was setting up an “American Gestapo,” because inquiries into the Pearl Harbor disaster revealed that in 1941 the U.S. had had at its disposal enough indications of a pending Japanese strike to anticipate and prevent it, but had taken no action because it lacked an organization capable of collating the diffuse bits and pieces of intelligence information.

Before proceeding with an assessment of the CIA, a few facts need to be established. The CIA is neither the only nor the largest intelligence branch of the U.S. government. The United States has approximately a dozen intelligence organizations, some attached to the civilian branches (from the Departments of Defense and State to that of Agriculture), others to the military services. By far the largest recipient of intelligence appropriations is the Department of Defense which, in addition to maintaining its own intelligence bureau (the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA), manages both satellite surveillance and communications intercepts. Recent leaks from Congress indicate that of the $28 billion budgeted annually for intelligence, the CIA receives only $3 billion. Thus, even if the CIA were abolished, a huge and costly intelligence apparatus would remain: lost would be an organ capable of bringing together the evidence obtained by the different services. We would find ourselves in the same position as before Pearl Harbor.

The second fact to bear in mind is that the CIA is only in a limited sense a “spying” organization, in that “spying” in the precise sense of the word (involving deliberate disguise and deception) constitutes only a small part of the CIA’s activities, whether measured in terms of personnel or of budgets. The Agency has two principal divisions: the Directorate of Operations, which carries out clandestine work, including espionage, and the Directorate of Intelligence, which collects and analyzes data that flow from diverse sources. According to knowledgeable persons, clandestine operations currently absorb less than 5 percent of the Agency’s budget, and possibly as little as 1 percent. Much covert work consists of small and peaceful operations such as sponsoring publications and funding trade unions.

The principal business of the Agency is analysis and estimation: the CIA resembles far less the world inhabited by James Bond and the heroes of John le Carré’s novels than a gigantic think-tank, staffed with people who have nothing to do with spying (even if they benefit from covertly obtained information) and who in their training and duties resemble academic researchers.



Triumphs and Fiascos

The opponents of the CIA stress its recurrent intelligence failures as an argument for its liquidation. And undeniably, the Agency has had more fiascos than the law of averages would suggest. It misjudged from the outset both the pace and the magnitude of the Soviet nuclear effort, its main responsibility: its 1966 projection of Soviet ICBM’s for 1970, for instance, was half of what they turned out, in fact, to be.1 It minimized or ignored Soviet defensive measures, such as dispersal, hardening, and redundancy of command-and-control systems, as well as shelter provisions for the leadership—measures which told a great deal about Soviet strategic intentions. Year after year, it depicted the Soviet economy as healthier than it actually was and Soviet defense expenditures as considerably lower than they actually were. On President Kennedy’s accession in 1961, the CIA provided projections of Soviet economic growth, based on Moscow’s statistics, from which it emerged that by the year 2000 the USSR would have a gross national product (GNP) three times that of the United States!2 At the same time, the Agency consistently underestimated the Soviet defense budget, placing it originally at 6 to 8 percent of GNP and then, in February 1976, inexplicably doubling that figure to 10 to 15 percent.3 As has become known since, the true figure was close to double even the doubled figure.

The reasons for these misjudgments will be spelled out in due course. Here, suffice it to say that such absurd miscalculations had serious political consequences. For by depicting the Soviet Union as both stronger and less menacing than previously thought, they pushed the United States toward accommodation with it in the form of détente and an obsession with arms-control negotiations.

The Agency’s record of predictions is hardly better than its estimates. In 1950, it failed first to anticipate North Korea’s invasion of South Korea and then the intervention of China. In 1962, it denied that Russia intended to install missiles in Cuba up to the very moment when photographic imagery proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the missiles were being deployed. It anticipated neither the Warsaw Pact aggression against Czechoslovakia in 1968, nor the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, nor the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that same year, nor even Iraq’s assault on Kuwait in 1990. It was surprised by the crushing of Solidarity in Poland in 1981. Such instances of failure can be multiplied.

Less often mentioned are the CIA’s successes. It has done an excellent job of tracking Soviet weapons developments. In the 1950′s, it correctly downplayed the prospect of a Soviet attack on the United States which had many Washington politicians and generals worried. It set in motion a variety of programs to counter Communist propaganda, one of which, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, contributed powerfully to keeping alive dissent inside the Communist bloc. In the 1980′s, under President Reagan and his Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), William Casey, it helped, by various covert economic, military, and political operations, to undermine Soviet authority in Poland and Afghanistan.

Many of the Agency’s intelligence failures can be attributed to identifiable and remediable flaws of methodology. But even the best-functioning intelligence service cannot be counted upon reliably to predict the actions of foreign powers: divining political intentions is far and away the most difficult aspect of intelligence work. This holds especially true of dictatorial regimes, with which U.S. intelligence is particularly concerned, because their decisions are in the hands of unstable and impulsive individuals subject to few if any external controls. It is hard to predict the behavior of unpredictable personalities.



To place the CIA’s performance in proper perspective, it helps to look at the record of other intelligence organizations. In the 1930′s, the vaunted British secret service, notwithstanding excellent contacts in Germany, persistently misjudged Hitler’s military capabilities as well as his intentions, having convinced itself that the Nazi rearmament program was purely defensive. After Hitler had gone to war in September 1939, British intelligence believed that economic exigencies would make it increasingly difficult for Germany to continue fighting beyond the spring of 1941.4 British intelligence, which at the time, like its U.S. counterpart, lacked a center to collate secret data, firmly rejected the possibility of a Nazi-Soviet rapprochement, a German invasion of Norway, or a Wehrmacht assault on France by way of the (allegedly) impassable Ardennes Forest.5

Japanese intelligence, for its part, managed to persuade its superiors that once the American Pacific fleet had been crippled, the Americans, being prudent businessmen, would sue for peace rather than fight an unprofitable war. The German secret service assured Hitler that as soon as the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939 became public, Britain would renege on its pledge to defend Poland and abandon that country to its fate. Both misjudgments had catastrophic results for the countries concerned.

Intelligence failures, it thus transpires, are not a CIA monopoly; they are not even a monopoly of the intelligence community. Despite vast sums spent on armies of securities analysts who have the advantage of a great deal of reliable public information as well as access to managements, no brokerage firm seems to have found a way of gauging the direction of the financial markets. Indeed, the unmanaged Standard & Poor index fund has been beating three-quarters of the mutual funds run by experts. Even throwing darts at a list of securities has at times produced results as good as, if not better than, those of professional analysts. Nor have economists had notable success in forecasting the course of the nation’s economy despite the abundance of indicators at their disposal.6 What can one reasonably expect, therefore, of analysis which deals with concealed and often deliberately distorted data, and with decisions made in secret by inaccessible rulers, accountable only to themselves?7

It needs also to be borne in mind that the sins of the CIA with respect to the Communist bloc duplicated those of academic Sovietology. Proceeding from the same premises and employing the same methodology, the overwhelming majority of professors and think-tank specialists were just as guilty as the CIA of overestimating Soviet strength and stability and of interpreting Soviet actions in defensive terms.8

This much conceded, it is possible nevertheless to isolate certain recurrent blunders on the part of both intelligence producers and consumers, avoidance of which would go a long way toward improving the intelligence process. The two most common of these are “mirror-imaging” and political interference.




Mirror-imaging is the tendency to interpret the actions of others in one’s own terms. The analyst looks at the situation which his subject confronts and asks himself, “What would I do if I were in his shoes?” The propensity to think in this way derives from a mixture of deficient imagination and, where other nations are concerned, ethnocentricity. The approach assumes that in every situation requiring choices, one choice is the most “rational” and therefore the most likely to be made.

The trouble with this premise is that “rationality” applies only to the means, not to the ends.9 The person engaged in mirror-imaging, however, assumes that all human actions tend toward the same end—namely, his own—and that, by placing himself in the position of an adversary, he can anticipate the adversary’s behavior. It is, without a doubt, the most common error of intelligence-estimating, much more prevalent in political affairs than in military ones, since in warfare the end is always the same—victory—and thus the means can be more reliably calculated in terms of their “rationality.”10

The more imaginative the analyst, the better versed in the cultures with which he deals, the less likely he will be to attribute to others his own values and objectives. Unfortunately, in this respect the typical U.S. analyst is at a particular disadvantage, being the product of a political culture that disapproves of the notion that other people are “different,” since that notion has commonly been used to justify racial and ethnic discrimination. Deeply embedded in this country’s ethos is the belief that fundamentally all peoples are the same—that is, like white, middle-class Americans—and if given a chance will behave like white, middle-class Americans. What is usually meant by this is that people act out of enlightened self-interest, unaffected by strong passions or convictions, and desire to improve their lot and to live in peace with the rest of humanity.

The following remarks by a scholar who has had close connections with the intelligence community may be overly censorious but they describe a genuine phenomenon:

The typical [CIA] officer was brought up in a nice American suburb during the 1960′s. . . . He has never done manual labor, and has never been personally close to anyone who has lived by it. He has never had to struggle for his next meal, and has never known anyone who has. He has no idea of life under arbitrary power. He has never served in the armed forces, much less has he known danger. He has traveled abroad as a tourist, but has never lived or transacted business abroad. His upbringing did not acquaint him with passion of any kind. It taught him to distrust the notion that anyone can believe in anything. He does not attend church or synagogue, nor does he argue about religion. He is a pleasant fellow, neither aggressively patriotic nor aggressively anything, and is uncomfortable with anyone who is.11

Such a person does not understand and therefore is unable to take seriously ideological or religious fanaticism; he interprets behavior that does not serve his conception of enlightened self-interest as either affectation or the result of material want and social injustice.



It is this mindset that has caused the CIA to misread many Communist actions. In 1950, the Agency was convinced that the Chinese would not intervene in Korea because such action would be “irrational”: hence it predicted that they would confine themselves to the defense of their power plants along the Yalu River. In the early 60′s it could not see any conceivable interest on the part of the Soviet Union in placing nuclear missiles in Cuba since Moscow had to be aware that the United States would not tolerate such deployments: they were simply “too risky.”12 A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) produced as late as September 1962 argued forcefully against this contingency.13 The logic behind the gross misjudgment was spelled out in a rare moment of candor by Sherman Kent, a Yale history professor who served as the CIA’s Director of National Estimates at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Kent told his associates that

his estimate of what was reasonable for the Soviet Union to do was a lot better than Khrushchev’s, and therefore he was correct in analyzing the situation as it should have been seen by the Soviet Union.14

Mirror-imaging also caused the CIA to construe the massing of Red Army troops in Central Asia in 1979 as designed to protect Soviet assets in Afghanistan. It rejected the likelihood of a political coup accompanied by a full-scale military invasion on the ground that Moscow would not want to jeopardize the SALT II agreement then before the U.S. Senate, let alone risk repeating America’s debacle in Vietnam. CIA analysts apparently never contemplated the possibility that Russia might invade Afghanistan precisely to demonstrate that it could win the kind of war that America had lost.

Mirror-imaging also lay behind the stubborn insistence of the U.S. intelligence community in the 1970′s that the Soviet Union would not seek nuclear superiority. Persuaded by U.S. scientists, who had largely formulated the American strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), that nuclear war was unfeasible and that nuclear weapons had only one use—namely, to deter others—the CIA rationalized the observable Soviet buildup beyond parity in a variety of ways: that historic experience had made Russians a paranoid people; that Russia was confronting a Chinese threat; that it sought to make up with superior numbers for inferior quality. So wedded were CIA analysts to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction they would not even consider an alternative view. Only after being confronted in 1976 with a different interpretation by a group of outsiders, the so-called Team B, whose members were better versed in Soviet political and military doctrine, did the CIA acknowledge the possibility that the Soviet high command was thinking in terms of a first-strike capability.15



Political Interference

Ideally, intelligence analysis should be strictly separated from politics: which is to say that it should arrive at assessments without paying attention to the uses to which they may be put and without taking sides in policy disputes. In practice, this ideal is rarely attained. For while the purpose of intelligence is to provide statesmen with objective information upon which to base their decisions, decision-makers are not detached observers but men of action with their own agendas. If reality clashes with their wishes, the wishes usually win out. They welcome intelligence that supports what they are inclined to do and they ignore all else, or, worse still, they exert pressure on the intelligence community to come up with more helpful estimates.

The most glaring example of the political misuse of intelligence was Stalin’s refusal in 1941 to heed warnings of Hitler’s impending invasion delivered to him both by his own and by Allied secret services. Stalin had entered into his pact with Hitler with open eyes. Like his patron and teacher, Lenin, he felt that German revanchism represented the best opportunity to get the capitalist powers fighting themselves to exhaustion, which would leave them prostrate and at the mercy of Moscow. To this end, he assured Hitler a safe Eastern front. Expecting a replay of World War I, he was stunned by the rapid collapse of France in 1940, and responded by appeasing Hitler, supplying him with food, rubber, tin, manganese, and everything else Germany required to pursue the war against England. The possibility of Hitler’s turning around and attacking so faithful an ally struck him as preposterous and he dismissed reports to this effect as a British provocation. This, of course, represented a case of blatant mirror-imaging but also, and above all, of political interest overriding objective assessment. It nearly lost Russia the war, and caused millions of additional casualties.

In the United States, flagrant instances of ignoring or tampering with intelligence data occurred under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Shaken by Khrushchev’s bullying at the Vienna summit conference of 1961, Kennedy chose to demonstrate his toughness by invading Cuba and intervening in Vietnam. In both instances he brushed aside warnings of the CIA. Johnson, too, ignored CIA admonitions about the risks of a massive involvement in Vietnam because he had made up his mind to pursue the war there until victory.

The worst instances of politicization of the CIA occurred under President Nixon, who treated the Agency as a tool of White House policies. Irritated by its independent judgment, Nixon shifted much of the intelligence-estimating authority from the Agency to the office of his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger. In this manner, assessments could be reached which justified White House policies. In 1973 Kissinger, now Secretary of State, abolished the prestigious Office of National Estimates, replacing it with an amorphous body of individual National Intelligence Officers, who, acting as individuals rather than as a group, were easier to manipulate. To attain an arms-limitation agreement with Moscow, Nixon and Kissinger disregarded the Agency’s skepticism about U.S. ability to verify treaty compliance. According to one Agency veteran, the Nixon White House “brought strong pressure to bear on DCI Richard Helms to change the judgments of the National Intelligence Estimates.”16

Nixon further politicized the CIA by firing Helms for his independence and refusal to involve the Agency in the Watergate cover-up.17 Until then, the head of the intelligence agency, like that of the FBI, had been regarded as a civil servant rather than a political appointee. Historians of the CIA agree that these pressures greatly lowered both the quality of its intelligence estimates and its morale.

The practice of pressuring the Agency to come up with politically acceptable estimates continued under President Carter, whose DCI, Admiral Stansfield Turner, is said to have interfered with the estimating process and to have provided his own private estimates to suit the President.18

A recent instance of politicizing the intelligence process occurred in connection with the Gulf war. Having decided in late 1989 that he could turn Saddam Hussein around and moderate him, President Bush did not request a CIA assessment of the prospects and risks of such a policy before going ahead with its implementation. According to the CIA’s Deputy Director of Intelligence, the NIE on Iraq was produced after the decision to appease Saddam Hussein had been taken and duly ratified it.19 In order to support that policy, the NIE wrongly concluded that Iraq was too exhausted by its war with Iran to cause trouble before 1992.20 This judgment was reached despite the fact that satellite imagery clearly indicated a massive build-up of Iraqi forces.

Finally, it is said that an NIE issued in 1990 or 1991 which predicted very accurately the violent break-up of Yugoslavia was ignored by policymakers who did not even want to contemplate such a possibility.21

Thus, apart from the difficulties inherent in the process of assessing intelligence data and making forecasts on their basis, the CIA, like its counterparts in other countries, suffers from the added liability of having its estimates rejected or ignored when they do not fit the interests of politicians, their ultimate consumers.



What can be Done?

There is little doubt that, before long, decisions will be taken that will significantly transform the Central Intelligence Agency. A presidential committee, headed by ex-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, has been mandated to come up with recommendations on the subject by March 1, 1996.

Many projects of intelligence reform have been floated in the past, but for the most part they have involved organizational restructuring, which is every bureaucratic establishment’s favored way of responding to outside criticism. Current reform proposals, including those emanating from the recently retired DCI, Robert Gates, also focus on splitting up and distributing the constituent parts of the CIA without touching on the pro-founder causes of its shortcomings. Whatever the merits of organizational changes, they are best left to insiders. Without denying their utility, it may be doubted that the performance of the CIA (or its replacement) will greatly improve unless attention is given to the intellectual and political environment in which it operates.

The following suggestions seek to address the CIA’s more fundamental problems:

• One thing should not be changed: a central intelligence agency is indispensable. Experience has shown time and again, here and abroad, that the dispersal of intelligence responsibilities among government agencies without a common clearing-house prevents decision-makers from obtaining a reliable overview of a potential enemy’s capabilities and intentions.

Senator Daniel P. Moynihan has proposed doing away with the CIA altogether and transferring its functions to the Department of State. This recommendation not only ignores the fact that the State Department is a minor player in the collection and analysis of intelligence, but that it has traditionally spurned an intelligence role, preferring to rely on data obtained through diplomatic channels and being unwilling to have its diplomats treated as spies.

Only an organization separate from the other branches of government, with their vested interests in procuring arms, concluding international treaties, or promoting trade, can act as an “honest broker” and provide the President with disinterested assessments. Its function, in this respect, parallels that of the National Security Council, which came into existence concurrently with the CIA.

  • With an estimated staff of 20,000, the CIA is much too large and ought to be severely reduced in size. History suggests that intelligence services function best when they are small and are allowed to operate with a minimum of formality. Bureaucratization stifles originality and dilutes dissent, reducing opinions to averages that appear reasonable and yet—since reality is often not reasonable—may be widely off the mark: but bureaucratization inevitably accompanies expansion. The failure of Israeli intelligence in 1973 to interpret correctly the massing of Arab forces has been attributed to its bureaucratization following the Six-Day war of 1967. Conversely, the greatest triumphs of intelligence in this century—the breaking of the German codes by the British and of the Japanese codes by the Americans in World War II—were accomplished by small bands of eccentrics. When he organized the Office of Intelligence Estimates in 1950, Harvard’s William Langer said he wanted twenty analysts, and certainly no more than 100. And, indeed, in the first twenty years, the staff of Intelligence Estimates never exceeded 100. Today, the Directorate of Intelligence, the hub of the analytic world, employs 2,500.22
  • One way to reduce the CIA staff, apart from shifting some of its functions to other government departments, is generously to reward good work and ruthlessly punish poor performance. Contrary to the Agency’s practice, there should be no tolerance of analysts who consistently produce flawed assessments or assessments that hedge to the point of being useless. Altogether, the self-protective, clubbish atmosphere that prevails in the Agency needs to be done away with.

Much of the current hostility to the CIA derives from its scandalous indulgence of an incompetent officer, Aldrich Ames, who for nearly nine years used his position in the most sensitive branch, counterintelligence, to sell the KGB secret documents and betray Russians working for the United States. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has characterized this incident as the “most egregious” case of treason in American history, blaming it on the Agency’s habit of being “excessively tolerant of serious personal and professional misconduct among its employees.”23 The charge is underscored by the fact that none of Ames’s superiors has been dismissed.

• Analysts should be required to have profound knowledge and understanding of the societies with which they deal so as to avoid mirror-imaging. They must be able to identify with the cultures which are their responsibility and, in order to do so, learn to overcome the American aversion to the idea that nations differ in some fundamental ways.

In the 1930′s, Sir Robert Vansittart, acting as a one-man intelligence service, almost alone provided the British government with accurate assessments of Nazi capabilities and intentions, including the likelihood of Germany’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union. He succeeded because he knew Germany better than the professionals of the secret service. One month before Pearl Harbor, the American ambassador to Japan, Joseph G. Grew, who had spent nearly ten years in Tokyo, responded to judgments that the Japanese could not contemplate an attack on the United States by warning against

any possible misconception of the capacity of Japan to rush headlong into a suicidal conflict with the United States. National sanity would dictate against such an event, but Japanese sanity cannot be measured by our own standards of logic.24

So, too, anyone familiar with Communist history and psychology would have known that Moscow could not accept the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction because it had the effect of stabilizing the global power balance in America’s favor by eliminating competition in military forces, where the Soviet Union was strong, and shifting it to the political and economic arenas, where it was weak.

Such understanding can be taught, but only up to a point. Beyond that point it calls for wisdom that is an inborn quality: discernment and judgment cannot be institutionalized, but they can be rewarded.

• There is no substitute for human intelligence (HUMINT in CIA jargon). Since Admiral Turner’s unfortunate tenure as DCI in the Carter administration, reliance on human sources has been severely curtailed in favor of technical means, notably satellite imagery. The preference is, in some measure, understandable: in dealing with informants one can never be certain whether they are not double agents feeding disinformation, or well-intentioned but unreliable sources providing biased information out of grudge feelings against their native country. Cameras, by contrast, neither lie nor distort.

The trouble, however, is that technical means, while generally dependable in the matter of capabilities, cannot penetrate minds and hence are blind and deaf to intentions. Overreliance on technology can cause intelligence to miss what is most important. This, indeed, is what happened in the case of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: “Antennas sensitive to millionths of amps, and orbiting cameras that could detect mice on the earth’s surface, did not see hundreds of millions of people ready to overthrow the Communist world.”25 Nothing obtained by technical means has provided U.S. and British intelligence with the kind of information supplied by Oleg Penkovsky, Ryszard Kuklinski, or Oleg Gordievsky.

In the future, when the United States will confront not one hostile power with a massive nuclear arsenal, but many potential enemies with nuclear weapons and fanatical terrorists at their disposal, human intelligence will be more essential than ever.

• The intelligence community would do well to make greater use of open sources. Secret services are habitually reluctant to do so because information obtained by clandestine means enables them to shrug off criticism on the ground that the critics are not privy to classified information. But it is rare for classified data to outweigh what is in the public domain. How much better would British intelligence have understood Hitler’s ambitions had it read (and taken seriously) Mein Kampf, and how much would U.S. analysts have profited had they studied (and taken seriously) Soviet publications on nuclear strategy or the writings of Soviet émigrés on the Soviet economy.

Quality journalism is not only an essential adjunct to material obtained by intelligence but often a superior product because the information it contains has been collected and sifted by experienced observers on the scene. It has been my experience, while serving on the National Security Council, that although the Intelligence Daily which landed on my desk every morning occasionally provided unique insights, especially on military matters, it added little to what I learned from the press. Like many others in a similar situation, if compelled to choose between relying exclusively on one or the other—intelligence reports or the open press—I would unhesitatingly opt for the latter. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, arguably the world’s leading dailies, have over the years reported more reliably on political, economic, and cultural developments in the Communist bloc than the CIA. That this is not merely a casual impression has been confirmed by comparisons made by the National Security Council’s staff during the Nixon administration.26

  • To prevent more counterintelligence debacles, the FBI should be induced to cooperate better with the CIA. From the outset, the FBI has treated the CIA as an unwelcome rival and frequently refused to share information with it. This rivalry is believed to have been responsible for Ames’s ability to escape detection for so long. The importance of counterintelligence ought to be upgraded as well: it has been traditionally treated with disdain by the community.
  • To the extent that is humanly possible, the White House should resist the temptation to use the CIA as an instrument of policy. In the words of a veteran intelligence professional who had occasion to witness White House pressures to bend assessments, “the NIE’s ought to be responsive to the evidence, not the policy-maker.”27 This objective might be helped by the creation of a mechanism that would facilitate regular communications between intelligence personnel and policy-makers before crises occur.
  • Limits ought to be set to the legislative branches’ powers of oversight of intelligence agencies. Congress acquired these powers in the 1970′s, and though in some measure inevitable—in a democracy based on the separation of powers, the legislative branch is not likely to concede exclusive control over foreign intelligence to the executive—they have exceeded reasonable limits.

The CIA is the only body of its kind in the world that is required to account regularly to the legislature—no fewer than eight congressional committees!—and even to obtain from one of them (the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) prior approval of clandestine operations. The British secret service, by contrast, is accountable to a single individual, the Minister of Defense.

Given large congressional staffs, even with the greatest precautions the American practice ensures the leakage of classified information, paralyzing covert action. Means should be found to have the CIA report to one congressional committee or, better yet, to one or two of its representatives, and for these overseers to confine themselves to a general audit, without requiring too much detail, as was the case in the first quarter-century of the Agency’s existence. With human lives at risk, covert operations surely should be concealed not only from hostile powers but from congressional staffs.

  • Experience indicates that the Director of Central Intelligence and other senior intelligence officials can have the greatest impact on policy if they are personally and socially close to the President and other decision-makers. The importance of such a relationship derives from the fact that it enables the intelligence establishment to get a better hearing and better withstand political pressures. This is what happened in the case of DCI Allen Dulles’s relationship with Eisenhower and his own brother, the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, as well as in the case of William Casey’s relationship with Ronald Reagan. An alternative is to treat the DCI not as a political appointee due to be replaced by each incoming administration—as has been done since Nixon fired Helms—but as a civil-service professional, as is the case with the head of the FBI.
  • Since its unwelcome but highly beneficial brush with Team B, the Agency has regularly resorted to outside experts to evaluate its product. This practice should be maintained and extended.
  • The CIA has recently been pressured into accepting the idea of devoting the bulk of its attention to such global issues as pollution, health, natural resources, and endangered species. In 1991, President Bush signed a directive to this effect and the Agency quickly fell into line, creating a National Intelligence Officer for Global and Multilateral Issues. According to Robert Gates, the CIA was planning in 1992 to devote 40 percent of its resources to international economics and only 34 percent to Russia and the other successor states to the Soviet Union.28 One can only view such a shift of emphasis as a desperate attempt to find a make-believe role for the CIA in the post-Soviet world. But intelligence has only one function: to uncover foreign threats to national security. International terrorism and nuclear traffic clearly come within its purview. Global economic or environmental problems just as clearly do not: along with other ills afflicting humanity and the earth, they are best left to international organizations.
  • Although it is at present a fairly peaceful country, Russia is likely to remain the principal potential threat to the United States and should, therefore, remain the principal focus of our intelligence. Member states of the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States, a fictitious political entity if there ever was one, have been unable so far to devise political stability for themselves. Russia in particular lacks a political consensus: its democratic institutions function wretchedly, in an atmosphere of unreality. The mood of its people swings between extremes, one day sinking into abject self-deprecation, ready to welcome a foreign takeover, and the next insisting on being recognized as a global power of the first rank. The Yeltsin government, pressed by reactionary nationalists, is voicing ever-more-menacing threats to its neighbors. The KGB, though renamed and reorganized, remains very much in place. The armed forces, for all their difficulties, are also intact and commanded by generals who have not reconciled themselves to the loss of empire. The United States has mindlessly helped give them what they wanted—that is, a nuclear monopoly—by bullying Belorussia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan into surrendering their nuclear arsenals. In this manner, the U.S. has provided Moscow with the means some time in the future to force the separated republics back into the fold. Russia feels isolated, shunned by the world’s major military and economic blocs, and tempted to find security in a reconstructed bloc of its own.

All these facts suggest that Russia will for the foreseeable future be a major security problem for the rest of the world. In consideration of these realities, we have retained NATO and refused Russia membership in it. It behooves us also to keep in place a strong intelligence apparatus responsible for giving that country its unremitting attention.



In a world of contending powers, an integrated intelligence service is indispensable. A CIA reduced in size and properly staffed, willing to rely more than heretofore on open sources and human informants, and allowed to operate free of political interference, should be in a position to render decision-makers invaluable advice. But intelligence services are no substitute for the statesman’s personal judgment: they have not in the past and are unlikely in the future to provide him with the kind of certainty that he desires. In the end, the insight on which prudent decisions are based is the amalgam of diverse sources of information and experience, distilled by a process cloaked in mystery.


1 John Prados, The Soviet Estimate (Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 183-96.

2 Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile in Power (Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 54.

3 John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA (Simon & Schuster, 1987), pp. 621-22.

4 Christopher Andrew, Her Majesty's Secret Service (Viking Penguin, 1986), p. 428.

5 “As that ancient retiree from the Research Department of the British Foreign Office reportedly said, after serving from 1903 to 1950: ‘Year after year the worriers and fretters would come to me with awful predictions of the outbreak of war. I denied it each time. I was wrong only twice.’” Cited by Richard Betts in World Politics, October 1978.

6 At the end of 1994, reporting on the steady growth of the U.S. economy during the preceding twelve months, the New York Times wondered: “Why were most forecasters, who as recently as this summer were predicting a much leaner expansion and higher unemployment, so far off the mark?” New York Times, December 13, 1994.

7 The paradoxical aspect of British and American intelligence failures is that if treated as advice rather than predictions, they were often perfectly correct. Germany, indeed, did not have the capacity to wage a prolonged war. The Soviet Union should not have spent so much of its limited resources on the military, nor should it have installed missiles in Cuba or invaded Afghanistan. Similarly, North Korea would have spared itself a humiliating defeat by staying out of South Korea and Saddam Hussein by giving up his claims to Kuwait.

8 Good examples of this kind of thinking, common to the academic and intelligence communities, are two treatises by Raymond Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation (1985) and The Great Transition (1994), both published by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

9 The adjective “rational” derives from the Latin ratio which meant “reckoning” or “calculation” and was used in accounting. It defines the ways of attaining a desired result with the least effort and expense.

10 Mirror-imaging is more common in Anglo-Saxon countries with their prevailing utilitarian ethos. The Japanese and German intelligence services suffered more from a poor understanding of the American and British psyches.

11 Angelo M. Codevilla, Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century (Free Press, 1992), p. 103.

12 Harold P. Ford, Estimative Intelligence, revised edition (University Press of America, 1993), p. 103.

13 Donald P. Steury, in Sherman Kent and the Board of National Estimates (Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, 1994), p. ix.

14 Ray Cline, one-time Deputy Director for Intelligence of the CIA, in Roy Godson, ed., Intelligence Requirements for the 1980's: Analysis and Estimates (Transaction, 1980), p. 77.

15 That this indeed was the Soviet intention has now been confirmed from Soviet sources: Ford, Estimative Intelligence, p. 120. Harold Ford worked for many years in the CIA and in 1977 served as consultant to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence which severely criticized Team B for all manner of alleged sins. Both the Team-A and Team-B NIE's for 1976 have now been declassified and can be obtained from the National Archives. On the Team-B experiment, see my article, “Team B: The Reality Behind the Myth,” in the October 1986 issue of COMMENTARY.

16 Ford, Estimative Intelligence, p. 88.

17 Ranelagh, The Agency, pp. 545-46.

18 Mark M. Lowenthal, U.S. Intelligence: Evolution and Anatomy, 2nd edition (Greenwood, 1992), p. 53.

19 Douglas J. MacEachin, The Tradecraft of Analysis: Challenge and Change in the CIA (Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, 1994), p. 26.

20 Joseph Nye, Estimating the Future? (Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, 1994), p. 3.

21 Charles Cogan in Intelligence and National Security, IX, No. 4 (October 1994), p. 634; Nye, Predicting, p. 15.

22 Discussant in MacEachin, Tradecraft of Analysis, p. 33.

23 U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, An Assessment of the Aldrich H. Ames Espionage Case and Its Implications for U.S. Intelligence (November 1, 1994), p. 85.

24 Cited in Charles D. Ameringer, U.S. Foreign Intelligence (Free Press, 1990), p. 132.

25 Codevilla, Informing Statecraft, p. 125.

26 Andrew Marshall in Roy Godson, ed., Intelligence Requirements for the 1990's: Collection, Analysis, Counterintelligence, and Covert Action (Lexington Books, 1989), p. 120.

27 Ray S. Cline, The CIA Under Reagan, Bush, and Casey (Acropolis Books, 1981), p. 162.

28 Lowenthal, U.S. Intelligence, pp. 96 and 163.

About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).

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