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Obama and the CIA

Mother Jones‘s Laura Rozen has a very useful piece on intelligence professionals now working for Barack Obama. The good news: they “describe a candidate who they believe is open-minded and intellectually inclined to absorb information.” And this group of people (former National Security Council official Rand Beers, Former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, former senior CIA official John Brennan, former senior CIA operations officers Art Brown and Jack DeVine, retired Ltn. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, retired Ltn. Gen. and former head of the Defense Human Intelligence Service Donald Kerrick, among others) is “urging him to rethink the architecture of the intelligence community to grapple with both current and emerging threats.”

This piece is an attempt at explaining why these defense and intelligence professionals chose the novice Obama over a decorated veteran with a lot to show for as far as foreign policy is concerned. At the heart of it is this quote from Brennan, not mentioning McCain by name, but giving his reasons for backing Obama:

“If you look at the world in black and white, you miss a lot of the subtleties out there. ‘Either with us or against’-the world is not divided into good and evil a lot of time. Despite America’s military might, a lot of these problems do not lend themselves to kinetic solutions”-i.e. the use of force. And world dynamics are likely to get more complicated and nuanced, not less, by 2025.

I think that this tendency to talk a lot about “complications” and “nuances” is a deadly disease in intelligence professionals. It is usually a cover with which to hide the lack of commodities they were hired to provide: clear answers to tactical and strategic questions. We don’t need intelligence services in order to know that the world is complicated. Of course it is: but intelligence services are created to sift through those complications and give the president the tools with which to make decisions. This is something–and here Obama’s advisers are right–that the CIA has failed, more or less from its inception, to do. Reform is the right way to go. The only question is this: why would they think Obama is the guy to reform the intelligence community?

I think I have the answer for that, courtesy of Laura Rozen. But first, I’d like to say that I have no reason to suspect Obama doesn’t understand the urgent need for reform, or that he isn’t going to try and do it. I believe he’s approaching this issue in good faith. But read (or reread) Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes and be amazed at the number of presidents–from the 1950’s to Bush today–who have tried and failed to achieve this goal.

I went back to read one of Rozen’s earlier articles, explaining why CIA veterans are scared of McCain:

“McCain would be an absolute disaster,” says a second recently retired senior US intelligence operations officer. “He is prejudiced against the CIA. The day after the 2004 election when Bush won, McCain came on TV and gave an interview in which he said something to the effect of, ‘The CIA tried to sabotage this election. They’ve made their bed and now they have to lay in it.’ I used to like McCain, but he is inconsistent.” Columnist Robert Novak quoted McCain in November 2004 as saying, “With CIA leaks intended to harm the re-election campaign of the president of the United States, it is not only dysfunctional but a rogue organization.”

So some former CIA former officials say they want reform. Yet they are scared of the candidate who thinks their organization is a disaster. Huh? Isn’t it logical to suspect that the candidate less pleased with the CIA will also be the one that might be more aggressive in his pursuit of reform?

Rozen also reported on the way the McCain-apprehensive intelligence people think:

McCain is influenced by a circle of hardline Republican legislators and congressional staff as well as disgruntled former Agency officials “who all had these long-standing grudges against people in the Agency,” the former senior intelligence officer said. “They think the CIA is a hotbed of liberals. Right-wing, nutty paranoia stuff. They all love the military and hate the CIA. Because the CIA tells them stuff they don’t want to hear.”

Or–just maybe–it is because the military does its job, while the CIA keeps coming back with banal, unusable stories of a “nuanced” world?



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