My first personal encounter with the CIA came in 1989. I was living in Washington, D.C., editing a new publication about Communist affairs under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There had been a spate of violence directed against the Communist authorities in Russia; I was among the first to discuss and analyze these events, publishing my findings not only in my own research bulletin but also, to wider attention, in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
Shortly after my articles appeared I got a phone call from a second secretary of the Soviet embassy. He was fascinated, he told me, by what I had written, and he wanted to talk. I understood at once that a Soviet diplomat with an interest in American views of political violence in his own country would in all likelihood be a KGB officer. When we met at my office a few days later he turned out to be younger than I had expected, perhaps in his mid-thirties, with a broad smile and heavily pockmarked skin. His English was heavily accented but fluent. We had a pleasant talk for an hour. I described my findings in somewhat greater detail, and together we speculated about the future. And that seemed to be that.
Several days later I received another call, this time from someone who, explaining that he was with the CIA, said he had heard through the grapevine that I had met with a Soviet diplomat. The agency was interested in obtaining further information about him. Would I agree to get together? Despite not having much to say, I readily assented.
At the suggestion of my new acquaintance, we met at Tiberio, a posh Italian restaurant on K Street. The agency man, who was perhaps the same age as my KGB contact, had a studied nondescript appearance. Before his present assignment, to a unit debriefing Americans who had had contact with foreigners of interest to the government, he had been stationed in Rome for two years; he could not, he told me, say anything more about what he had been doing there. After a few minutes of such talk, we opened our menus. As he perused the choices, a question sprang from his lips that, when its implications sank in, shocked me to the core: “What’s prosciutto?”
It is, of course, easy to sneer at the CIA, at its blunders in recent years, and at the revealing cluelessness of a junior employee fresh from two years’ immersion in Italy. In fairness, though, the task the agency has been assigned is next to impossible: to observe what is happening inside nearly 200 national governments, to follow internal developments in thousands upon thousands of potentially hostile sub-national groups around the world, and to make sense not only of such discrete information but of broader trends in global politics and society that bear on our national security.
For those in charge of this vast enterprise, the ultimate issue is necessarily one of resource allocation: on what targets should reconnaissance satellites focus their lenses; which communications lines should be intercepted; on which strategic problems should the best analytical minds be brought to bear? And even if resources are always allocated with optimal savvy and thoughtfulness, the unlimited scope of the task, the extensive bureaucracy needed to perform it, and the necessary secrecy in which the work is wrapped virtually guarantee periodic lapses.
Unfortunately, in the age of global terrorism, lapses are unacceptable. The price of intelligence failure was borne in on all of us on September 11; and, given the very real prospect that terrorists will manage to acquire weapons of mass destruction, that price could rise much higher. The question is thus whether our intelligence services can be made to perform better than they have been doing; and, if so, how.
In thinking about this problem, the 9/11 Commission and other observers have pointed to a series of bureaucratic deformations within the agency. These fall under such headings as “stovepiping” or excessive compartmentalization, turf battling, information hoarding, group think, mirror-imaging, and many other terms familiar to readers of textbooks on organizations in disarray. Another line of inquiry, pursued in a still classified and only partially leaked report prepared by the CIA’s inspector general (IG), focuses on a different kind of breakdown: the failure of the agency’s leadership to direct adequate resources to the prevention of terrorism.
To address all of these shortcomings, President Bush has installed a new CIA director, Porter Goss, who against fierce resistance has been reshuffling the senior ranks. Congress, for its part, has moved with celerity and with White House support to follow the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, enacting the most far-reaching restructuring of the intelligence community since the founding of the CIA itself. Among the concrete measures now being set in place, one calls for a new inter-agency center for counterterrorism, another for a national intelligence director with cabinet rank who will both preside over the CIA and coordinate its work with the other fourteen government bodies that make up the U.S. “intelligence community.”
Will these reforms make a difference for the better? A perusal of those portions of the 9/11 Commission report devoted to the actual performance of the CIA does not inspire confidence. To the contrary: from that report, from congressional documents, and from a number of new books, it seems evident that the agency’s problems originate in realms deeper than can be addressed by a reconfiguration of the organizational chart.
Exhibit A in any discussion of these matters should be Imperial Hubris,* a best-selling book by “Anonymous,” who is described on the dust jacket as “a senior U.S. intelligence official with nearly two decades of experience in national-security issues.” As became known not long after the book’s publication, “Anonymous” is Michael Scheuer, until his resignation in the fall of 2004 a member of the CIA’s senior intelligence service. Between 1996 and 1999 Scheuer was in charge of “running operations against al Qaeda.” After leaving that post, he became a high-level manager in the agency’s counterterrorism center, the perch from which he wrote his book.
Imperial Hubris is subtitled Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror. This poses a loaded question from the start, since it is hardly self-evident that the West is losing the war on terror. But Scheuer is strongly convinced—and stridently insistent—that we are. Surveying U.S. counterterrorism policy in the period leading up to and following September 11, he adduces several major reasons why.
In the first place, he contends, American policymakers have failed to grasp the character of our adversaries’ enmity. Here our intellectual weakness begins with a faulty appraisal of Osama bin Laden himself. We have tended to caricature the mastermind of September 11 as a “deranged gangster,” someone “prone to and delighting in the murder of innocents,” and an “apocalyptic terrorist in search of Armageddon.” But, in reality, bin Laden is a strategically astute “practical warrior”—as well as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” Far from seeking the fiery destruction of the West, he is pursuing a series of narrow and tangible objectives.
A related misconception, according to Scheuer, is that bin Laden and his fellow Islamists hate the West for what it is rather than for what it does. Not so, he maintains. Al Qaeda does not want to destroy our liberal democratic institutions, our open society, or our freewheeling way of life. Rather, it is engaged in a “defensive jihad.” Many Muslims have a “plausible perception” that the things they hold most dear—“God, Islam, their brethren, and Muslim lands”—are being “attacked by America.” We are thus not enmeshed in a clash of civilizations but in something much less grand. The “key causal factor in our confrontation with Islam” is “a few, specific U.S. policies.”
Scheuer has a short list of these policies, beginning with our general stance in the Middle East. There, in the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. moved “from being the much-admired champion of liberty and self-government to the hated and feared advocate of a new imperial order.” This drive for hegemony, exemplified most recently by President Bush’s “avaricious, premeditated, un-provoked war” against Iraq, bears many of “the same characteristics as 19th-century European imperialism: military garrisons; economic penetration and control; support for leaders, no matter how brutal and undemocratic, as long as they obey the imperial power; and the exploitation and depletion of natural resources.”
A major outpost of our neo-imperial ambitions is the state of Israel. Or is it the other way around? All over the Middle East, writes Scheuer, the United States is now seen as a country that has “abandoned multiple generations of Palestinians to cradle-to-grave life in refugee camps” while “arming and funding [Israel’s] anti-Muslim violence.” It is, indeed, a wonder how Israel, “a theocracy-in-all-but-name of only about six million people . . . ultimately controls the extent and even the occurrence of an important portion of political discourse and national-security debate in a country of 270-plus million people.”
The key to this puzzle, Scheuer contends, lies in Israel’s crafty use of “diplomats, politicians, intelligence services, [and] U.S. citizen spies,” along with “wealthy Jewish-American organizations,” in order to “lac[e] tight the ropes binding the American Gulliver to the Jewish state.” But even to raise this subject, he warns darkly, is perilous to one’s health: our “political and social landscape is littered with the battered individuals . . . who dared to criticize Israel, or, even more heretically, to question the value to U.S. national interests of the country’s overwhelmingly one-way alliance with Israel.”
Sentiments like these mark the author of Imperial Hubris as something of a political hybrid—a cross, not to put too fine a point on it, between an overwrought Buchananite and a raving Chomskyite. This alone, one might think, should have unfitted him for a high position of trust within the CIA. But that is not the end of it. Even as he lambastes the United States from his isolationist position, reserving special fury not only for America’s alliance with Israel but for our “hallucinatory crusade for democracy,” Scheuer also swivels to assail Washington for being insufficiently hawkish in waging the war on terror. “
An Unprepared and Ignorant Lunge to Defeat” is how Scheuer titles his chapter on Afghanistan. What appears to exercise him most is the fact that, after September 11, the United States waited almost a month to respond to al Qaeda’s attacks. Instead of a “savage, preplanned U.S. military response,” there was “inexcusable delay” and “supine inaction.” This had the effect of turning the “human-economic calamity” of September 11 into a “catastrophe” and a “full-blown disaster.”
The same passivity supposedly on display in Afghanistan is, Scheuer asserts, undermining the broader war on terrorism. To our lasting peril, we have ignored the maxims of General Curtis LeMay, who taught us that war is about killing people and that “when you have killed enough of them they stop fighting.” What we need to do, and immediately, is to “proceed with relentless, brutal, and, yes, blood-soaked offensive military actions,” and these should not cease “until we have annihilated the Islamists who threaten us.”
Whence this peculiar congeries of views, advanced with supreme self-confidence and heedless inattention to fact? The workings of Scheuer’s mind owe much, he discloses, to an early supervisor who taught him that the key to “framing and solving intelligence problems was to first ‘do the checkables.’” The “checkables,” he explains,
are those parts of a problem that were knowable, the things on which there were classified archival records, pertinent and available human experience, current human assets to consult, or even the results of media and academic research. . . . The supervisor’s recipe was to exploit to exhaustion the “checkables” . . . and thereby identify the information we need to acquire before acting to resolve the problem.
This approach, whether dressed up in agency jargon or simply called basic research, would seem obvious enough. But, to the distress of Scheuer, virtually everyone in the U.S. government, except him, has shunned it. In Imperial Hubris he hammers this theme incessantly, and always in the same words. Here is a very partial selection from a single chapter:
“it is time to look at some of the easily checkable checkables that were obviously not checked”;
“therein lies another example of the cost of not reviewing the checkables”;
"something that could have been readily forecast if the checkables had been checked”;
“to make matters worse, the checkables were available in local public and university libraries”;
“a perfect example of the unnecessary mess that always ensues when time is not taken to review and digest the ‘checkables’”;
“the list of ‘checkables’ was immense . . . and yet tragically. . . almost no checking seems to have been done.”
- And so forth. It is, then, on the basis of his own, contrasting “willingness to review the checkables” that Scheuer asks us to accept his judgment of Osama bin Laden as a “gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous” leader, his assessment of our campaign in Afghanistan as “wretchedly ill-conceived,” and his conclusion that the collapse of that country’s government is guaranteed to happen, perhaps not “tomorrow, the day after, or even next year . . . but come it will.”*
- All of which leaves only two questions. How did a person of such demonstrable mediocrity of mind and unhinged views achieve the rank he did in the CIA, and how could so manifestly wayward and damaging a work have been published by someone in the agency’s employ? To the second question, at least, an answer of a sort is ready to hand, if one that raises disturbing questions of its own.
Last summer, CIA censors took the unusual step of permitting Michael Scheuer to publish Imperial Hubris in the middle of the presidential election season. This move, along with several simultaneous leaks of classified intelligence studies painting a grim portrait of the American campaign in Iraq, struck many as a blatant intervention by the agency into electoral politics, with Scheuer being used as a proxy. According to the Washington Post, however, the decision had an entirely different motive. Four top CIA managers had given Scheuer a green light out of fear that, if blocked, he would resign from the agency, thereby “earning even more attention for a work they viewed as partly ludicrous.”
Whether the decision was a CIA calculation or (yet another) miscalculation, we are still left with the question of how, for a period of years, a man of this caliber had been given primary responsibility for the effort to understand and counter Osama bin Laden. But the bad news is that the presence of such a figure in a pivotal position within the CIA was not a fluke.
For helpful light on this subject, among others, we can turn to another new book, Denial and Deception by Melissa Boyle Mahle. Until 2002, Mahle was an Arabic-speaking field operative in the CIA’s clandestine service. With degrees from Berkeley and Columbia, she also served as an agency recruiter, visiting college campuses in search of suitable candidates for the directorate of operations. At some point in her career, she herself became the object of a counterintelligence inquiry and was eventually forced to resign. The details of her dismissal remain classified; her only comment here is that “it was not a friendly departure. I made a mistake, to which I admitted freely, accepting responsibility for a poor decision.”
But Denial and Deception is by no means the work of a disgruntled whistleblower. Like Scheuer, Mahle had a bird’s-eye view of CIA counterterrorism operations in the period leading up to September 11. Unlike Scheuer, she is a calm and thoughtful writer, and her book is a dispassionate attempt to probe “why the agency failed to accurately predict the nature of the threat, comprehensively warn of the breadth of the threat, and effectively disrupt the planning, preparation, and execution of the attacks.”
In addressing this subject, Mahle draws on her personal experiences running CIA operations in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and other Middle Eastern locales. She also ranges widely over the recent history of the agency, recounting the attempts by successive directors to reshape its internal workings.
As Mahle is not the first to show, and as can be pieced together from other sources, including declassified CIA documents, a bureaucratic sclerosis seems to have gripped the agency over the course of the 1980’s and 90’s. It was on especially vivid display in the case of the Soviet mole Aldrich Ames. Despite the agency’s claims that it recruits only the best and the brightest, Ames was hired after earning a B.A. in history from George Washington University with a middling grade average of B–. This, moreover, seems to have marked the high-water mark of his career. Before being arrested in 1994 and unmasked as a traitor, he was widely regarded by his colleagues and supervisors as having (in the words of a subsequent internal report) “little focus, few recruitments, no enthusiasm, little regard for the rules and requirements, little self-discipline, little security consciousness, little respect for management or the mission, few good work habits, few friends, and a bad reputation in terms of integrity, dependability, and discretion.”
Yet, despite these scathing assessments; despite his well-known habit of sleeping off his “liquid lunches” at his desk in the afternoon; and despite a “potentially very serious security violation” in which he left a suitcase full of classified documents in a New York City subway car, Ames was not only retained in the CIA’s employ but was consistently promoted upward until he became chief, successively, of two branches focusing on the USSR. There he gained unfettered access to the agency’s global efforts against the Soviet Union. In exchange for cash, he proceeded to betray almost every asset the CIA had in place in the USSR, an act resulting in the deaths of numerous Russians who had risked their lives to help the United States.
If the Ames case revealed a near-incomprehensible sloth in the area of personnel management, its aftermath went damagingly to the opposite extreme. Because the unthinkable had occurred, and the KGB had been allowed to penetrate the CIA’s inner sanctum, the internal-security branch was unleashed to ensure there would never be a recurrence. Among other measures, polygraph testing of employees was instituted with a vengeance. Since Ames himself had managed to deceive polygraph examiners, more aggressive techniques were introduced.
The new approach, explains Mahle, entailed exposing loyal officers to hostile interrogation:
Gone was the collegial relationship between examiner and examinee where “concerns” were discussed, with the examiner saying, “Gee, you are showing discomfort on that question . . . can you tell me why?” The post-Ames approach was “You are lying. I know you are lying. The machine shows you are lying. Admit your guilt now or your career is over.”
Subjected to such grueling exams, some 400 officers flunked. Their names were then reported to the FBI for mandatory investigation, setting in motion a process that could take years to resolve. These agents, many of whom were deprived of their right to travel abroad on official business or to work with classified materials, were thrust into a limbo status and came to be known within the agency as “ghosts.”
Wreaking havoc on morale, the polygraph machine also created a major bottleneck in recruitment at the very moment when the agency was facing a crippling shortage of new blood. According to Mahle, nearly three-quarters of CIA applicants are now rejected on the basis of polygraph results, a rate suggesting that an astonishingly high proportion are engaged in unacceptable levels of “immoral, criminal, or counterintelligence [i.e., potentially traitorous] behavior.” In explaining this puzzling phenomenon, she offers up a crucial detail: investigators successful at “catching people who lie” during their polygraph exams are awarded bonuses.
If the deformities caused by the CIA’s peculiar culture of internal security have taken a toll, of equal significance are intrusions of a much less discussed kind that have subtly corroded the organization’s self-image and morale. The cumulative impact of these intrusions on recruitment and ultimately on performance—especially in the area of counterterrorism—may not be precisely measurable, but is undoubtedly profound.
From the start, our national spy agency was designed to operate in a radically different manner from every other government organization. How, after all, could it engage successfully in the black arts of espionage—breaking the laws of other countries, recruiting agents, stealing secrets—if it were not allowed to conduct itself, at least to some extent, outside the rules? But, in important respects, Congress, the executive branch, and the agency’s own leadership have conspired over the decades to turn the CIA into a government bureaucracy like any other, its managers and employees preoccupied with endless reams of restrictive regulations and simultaneously caught up in many of the newfangled pathologies of the American workplace.
In Denial and Deception, Mahle identifies the “old boy network” as one important source of dysfunction. Whether or not that is so, the effort to dislodge it created another and perhaps greater problem. Though the agency had begun to recruit many more women in the 1980’s and 90’s, their ability to move into senior positions, writes Mahle, was limited by the “dinosaur brains” who ran the show. In 1991, a CIA-commissioned “glass ceiling” study found that women were not achieving “at the same pace of or [to] the same degree as men,” and were receiving “proportionately fewer awards” while men were still being “given the choice assignments.” The report also noted that, “in order to be accepted,” female officers tolerated widespread sexual harassment.
When the Clinton administration came into power, combating sexual harassment and the “glass ceiling” became part of a much broader campaign to reconstitute the agency workforce. Mahle tells part of the story, the part about “the old boy network”; congressional documents supply the missing pieces concerning the hiring and promotion of minority candidates.
Upon assuming his position as Clinton’s first CIA director in 1993, R. James Woolsey—who tried valiantly, and failed, to get the President to focus on the threat of terrorism in the aftermath of the first bombing of the World Trade Center—announced an ambitious affirmative-action plan. Although he was careful to state that “we have not and will not set down quotas,” Woolsey conformed to the new administration’s mandate by requiring the agency’s deputy directors “to identify the top 50 positions in their directorates” and to collect data on “the percentage of minorities who apply, and the number selected” for these slots; he also pushed forward a mandatory program aimed at preventing sexual harassment.
By 1995, under John Deutch, Clinton’s second director, the effort to remake the agency in the name of “diversity” had intensified markedly. Deutch began his tenure by advancing a “strategic diversity plan” and installing a forty-year-old Pentagon official, Nora Slatkin, in the agency’s executive-director slot to carry it out. Slatkin soon formed a Human Resources Oversight Council (HROC) aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities.” The need for such measures, according to HROC, was clear from its own study of shortfalls in “recruiting, hiring, and advancement”:
[M]inorities in the agency’s workforce—particularly Hispanics and Asian-Pacific employees—remain underrepresented when compared with Civilian Labor Force (CLF) guidelines determined by the 1990 census. Hispanic employees in FY 1995 accounted for 2.3 percent of the agency workforce; CLF guidelines indicate Hispanics nationwide account for 8.1 percent of the nation’s workforce. Asian-Pacific employees comprised only 1.7 percent of the agency’s workforce; CLF guidelines indicate Asian-Pacific minorities comprise 2.8 percent of the nation’s workforce.
To reduce these statistical discrepancies, Slatkin declared “a goal that one out of every three officers hired in fiscal years 1995-97 be of Hispanic or Asian-Pacific origin.” She moved no less aggressively to alter the ethnic and sexual complexion of the CIA’s higher levels. In just six months, she was able to report, “42 percent of officers selected for senior assignments ha[d] been women or minorities.”
Inevitably, working relationships were affected by these shifts. According to Mahle, some male officers became “very supportive of the diversity program and ma[d]e a point of mentoring female officers under their command.” But there was also “a perception among some male officers that the CIA now use[d] a quota system for assignments and promotions.” And this perception, she adds, was “probably true.”
By 1999, the agency’s top leaders were actively engaged in the campaign for greater diversity, or, in plain English, quotas. Clinton’s third director, George Tenet, issued a major statement deploring the fact that “[m]inorities, women, and people with disabilities still are underrepresented in the agency’s mid-level and senior officer positions,” and asserting his determination to end this state of affairs. It was, he said, incumbent on “supervisors and managers” at all levels to understand that diversity is “one of the most powerful tools we have to help make the world a safer place,” and he declared that they would be held accountable for “ensuring that this agency and community are inclusive institutions.”
Today, after more than a decade of submission to this powerful tool, CIA employees can take pride in being part of a very inclusive institution indeed. One measure of this, as the agency itself boasts on its website, is the number of “affinity groups” it supports within its ranks. There is, for example, the Asian Pacific American Organization, which “assists in recruiting, mentoring, counseling, and monitoring the advancement of Asian American officers to insure that equity is occurring.” The Black Executive Board functions to advance the “multicultural environment” and provides guidance “to senior management on all matters affecting recruiting, hiring, retention, networking, assignments, promotions, and career development opportunities.” The Hispanic Advisory Council “provides input” on Hispanic issues, while the Native American Council serves as “a champion of diversity in the [CIA] workplace.” There is also ANGLE, the Agency Network for Gay and Lesbian Employees, which is “geared toward fostering the principles of diversity and creating opportunities” for the agency’s “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gendered employees.”
These, then, have been the fruits of an effort going back well over a decade and consuming a large quotient of the agency’s senior-level attention—the same period in which al Qaeda was gathering force and training thousands of Islamists, and when the CIA’s overriding need, conspicuously unmet all those years, was the hiring of more officers capable of speaking and reading Arabic.*
The misplaced internal obsessions of the CIA are rightly an issue of major concern. But fully to grasp the difficulties enveloping the agency, one must enter into an area that the 9/11 Commission, perhaps in order to retain its facade of bipartisan comity, was at pains to avoid—namely, the political dimension of things.
To put the matter at its simplest, American elites have become increasingly discomfited over the last decades by the very existence of a clandestine intelligence service in a democratic society. Beginning with the Church Committee hearings in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, and with the collapse of the anti-Communist consensus, the CIA has thus come under regular assault from both Congress and the media for real and alleged transgressions of its mandate. At times, the White House has weighed in with strictures (and purges) of its own.
The net effect has been to create a climate inside the agency in which employees at all levels, and particularly in management positions, have become fearful of aggressively performing their jobs. After all, the price of stepping over the line in the service of one’s country could now mean not only the end of one’s career but being hauled before a congressional committee or, as happened in the Iran- contra fiasco, indicted by a criminal court.
A salient victim of this ultra-cautious mood has been counterterrorism. In 1996, the agency established an Osama bin Laden “issue group” within its counterterrorism center. According to Mahle, the unit was considered a bureaucratic Siberia by those on the agency fast track and was left “critically short of experienced analysts.” It was also presided over by a less than sterling mind: Michael Scheuer. Only in 1998, after al Qaeda had blown up U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and after bin Laden had issued a second fatwa (a first in 1996 had been largely ignored) urging all Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military,” was the CIA goaded into action—if action is the proper word.
After the embassy bombings, Mahle recounts, George Tenet “declared war against bin Laden. He really did. Those words came out of his mouth—multiple times.” But, she goes on, it was not really a war at all. Instead, the CIA, “which typically operates in crisis-management mode, just added one more crisis to the pile.” Between 1998 and 2000, only three officers were focused exclusively on al Qaeda. Beginning in 2000 the number was increased to five.86 And this was evidently the way Tenet liked it, for “if CIA management wanted a fully staffed, powerhouse counterterrorism center,” notes Mahle, “all it had to do was speak.”
Tenet’s aversion to effective action against al Qaeda is not all that difficult to comprehend. As Mahle (a self-acknowledged Clinton voter) emphasizes, Tenet was working in the service of an administration that was itself risk-averse, that regarded foreign policy as a distraction, and that therefore considered the CIA “potentially dangerous to the White House and need[ing] to be controlled tightly, kept on a very short leash.” A political creature to his core, Tenet was bent on keeping “CIA activities within Clinton’s comfort zone.”
But if Tenet was “successful in not getting caught out in front of Clinton,” he was also successful in “not getting out in front of rapidly emerging terrorist threats.” Typical was the way in which the CIA pursued bin Laden in the late 1990’s. Although the agency was operating under a government-wide ban (imposed in the Reagan era) on participating in assassinations, the ban had now come to be construed by CIA higher-ups in the most stringent form imaginable. An operation had to be immediately halted, writes Mahle, if CIA lawyers “caught a whiff of anything that could be interpreted on the most liberal basis as practicing assassination, condoning assassination, or assisting indirectly in assassination.” Indeed, the agency even concluded it had a “duty to warn” individuals who were targets of assassination, leading to “absurd situations” in which it found itself firing agents it itself had hired to eliminate terrorists and alerting “its own enemies” of threats against them.
One such absurd situation, as we learn from the 9/11 Commission report, occurred in 1998, when CIA officers in the field developed a well-formulated plan to ambush and capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan as he traveled between Kandahar and his terrorist training facilities at Tarnak Farms. Though the agents judged the plan to be highly promising, headquarters was discomfited. In the words of the 9/11 Commission, the proposed operation “brought to the surface an unease about paramilitary covert action that had become ingrained.” One senior manager “expressed concern that people might get killed.”
Not long afterward, the operation was called off. As a result, people did get killed—thousands of them—and not on the road from Kandahar but in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in rural Pennsylvania.
The CIA is an organization that grew out of the American role in extinguishing the military conflagration that swept the world beginning in 1939. Its roots lie in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence unit that truly did draw upon some of our country’s best and brightest, accomplishing, with scarce resources and often under desperate conditions, heroic feats of action and analysis. The establishment of the CIA in 1947 was based upon a recognition that in the atomic age, and with the rise of a nuclear-armed Communist adversary, another surprise attack like Pearl Harbor could not be allowed to happen.
Across five decades, the CIA performed its intelligence mission with varying degrees of proficiency and success. It had its major operational debacles, as in the Bay of Pigs, and its no less significant analytical failures, as in its persistent misestimates of the size and composition of the Soviet economy. It also accomplished awe-inspiring deeds, including the development of the U-2 spy aircraft and the recruitment of a number of highly placed Communist-bloc spies. Yet increasingly, as the cold war wore on, and in its aftermath, the agency went downhill.
The Clinton administration greatly accelerated this process, not only by sharply cutting the CIA’s budget but also by reining in almost all risk-taking operations and browbeating the agency into becoming a showcase for the Clintonian brand of affirmative action. And showcase is the right word: if the CIA typically shrouds itself in secrecy, when it comes to racial and gender preferences, few government agencies have made their internal workings quite so visible. The drive to hire more “Asian-Pacific” and Hispanic officers at the very moment the CIA was facing a critical shortage of Arabic speakers, and at the very moment when Islamic terrorism was emerging as the most significant threat to our national security, speaks volumes about how and why the agency failed in its mission of safeguarding the United States.
Just as there is no single cause of the CIA’s manifold shortcomings, however, so there is no single solution that can put things right. The United States is today once again at war, and contrary to the CIA’s leading expert on Osama bin Laden, we are facing not a “gentle” adversary but one that has already demonstrated its capacity to murder large numbers of us. In this war, intelligence is the most important front—which means that fixing the CIA or, if it cannot be fixed, replacing it with something different and better, remains the government’s most pressing task. Unfortunately, grafting a new layer of bureaucracy on top of what exists, as Congress has just done, does not even begin to grapple with the real weaknesses of the present system.
* Brassey’s, 309 pp., $27.50.
* In light of his obsession with checking the checkables, it is positively bizarre that Scheuer seems constitutionally unable to spell, or to check the spelling of, figures in and out of government who appear in his book—L. Paul Bremer III, the first U.S. proconsul in Iraq, is rendered as L. Paul Bremmer, General Curtis LeMay as General Lemay, the foreign-policy analysts Edward Luttwak and Adam Garfinkle as the duo of Lutwack and Garfinckle, etc.
86 Denial and Deception: An Insider’s View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11. Thunder’s Mouth/Nation, 320 pp., $26.00.
* According to the report of the joint congressional inquiry into September 11, “the intelligence community was not prepared to handle the challenge it faced in translating the volumes of foreign-language counterterrorism intelligence it collected,” and was at “a readiness level of only 30 percent in the most critical terrorism-related languages used by terrorists.” 86 These are Mahle’s numbers; congressional documents offer several different figures. The still-classified CIA IG report may resolve the matter.