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Friday, May 26, 2006

The domestication of the CIA 


Wretchard put up a post this afternoon that reminds us that the campaign to gut the CIA's Directorate of Operations has been going on for thirty years. Referring to an article from Time magazine, February 6, 1978:

The article exposes how intelligence agencies, contrary to intent, are being run from the White House by political figures. "When last week's executive order was finally hammered out, Admiral Turner, perhaps only half in jest, threw up his arms, sighed and told Brzezinski: 'They call me the intelligence czar, but you're the boss.'"

History, or at least a particular version of it, has not reflected well on Stansfield Turner's tenure in the top job. Whether he was his own man or a tool of Jimmy Carter, Turner fought to transform the Clandestine Service into just another branch of the post office:
In keeping with the populist tone of the new administration, Turner vowed to make the CIA "more like America," by which he meant that Agency personnel should become more diverse, with women and minorities given more opportunities. This led to some hilarious results, as when a would-be agent in Communist central Europe went to meet a CIA case officer in an outdoor cafe, only to discover that the Agency had sent a very tall, very black man who attracted considerable attention. The agent-to-be promptly hightailed it out of there.

Turner continued the purge, shutting down eight hundred positions in the clandestine service, and driving more than three hundred others into early retirement. And he chose the worst possible method for an organization whose performance depends greatly on morale. Instead of asking senior officers to make the painful choices themselves, and working with the victims to ease their transition (for no other reason than the concern that some of them might be angry enough to offer their services to the enemy), Turner had the list randomly generated by computer. [Ledeen, The War Against the Terror Masters, p. 97.]

The Carter/Turner restructuring and the legislation that flowed from the Church Committee investigations of 1975 were a reaction to the intersection of the sudden transparency of Vietnam era journalism and the attendant leftist political culture. As the Cold War matured from a war into something more akin to a bureaucratic struggle, the CIA became an embarrassment to the internationalists in both parties. In the judgment of the day, the CIA had to be transformed.

Most organizations need to be restructured from time to time, and sometimes they need new regulation. It isn't the fact of the restructuring or the new regulation that determines the effectiveness of the organization going forward, but the soundness of the judgment and the quality of the respect deployed in the doing of it. Too little of either, and the behavior of the surviving personnel will be altered permanently for the worse, and the organization itself will not be flexible enough to adjust to changing conditions. Stansfield Turner's terminations by random selection required no judgment and reflected outright contempt. The new regulations that were promulgated during the 1970s were predicated on the assumption that our enemy would always be a communist bureaucracy. The result was that the CIA had neither the cultural wherewithal nor the legal authority to adapt to the post Cold War world.

The Turner restructuring indeed may have rendered the CIA safe, insofar as it no longer sallied forth to destabilize foreign governments or reverse putatively democratic elections, but those very reforms destroyed its capacity to anticipate and confront threats that were less conservative and bureaucratic than the Soviet Union. An intelligence organization that is culturally and legally cautious is not going to attract the rough men who have what it takes to recruit and run agents in the ugliest corners of the world. In Michael Ledeen's well-framed question, "[h]ow else can you explain the fact that as of September 10 [2001] we had not a single human agent in Iran, Iraq, or Syria?"

8 Comments:

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Thu May 25, 11:27:00 PM:

Back in the glory days we had plenty of assets. For one, we were real tight with the leader of Iraq. We gave him weapons and maps. We also invested in a little help against the Russians. Those Afghani freedom fighters sure kicked some Russian ass.

Oh how I long for those wise, wise days of yesteryear. We sure had our shit together then.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu May 25, 11:44:00 PM:

Lanky,

All operations have blowback. Even assuming, arguendo, that al Qaeda is actually blowback from Afghanistan, I submit that it was a worthy trade. The war on terror is a serious fight, but not slightly as serious as the confrontation with the Soviet Union.  

By Blogger Mycroft, at Fri May 26, 08:46:00 AM:

Even the publicly known list of CIA successes during the Cold War is stunning.

They kept France and Italy from going Communist, through strategic support of center-left parties. They successfully executed a bloodless regime change in Iran. They executed a slightly more bloody regime change in Guatemala (and on a cautionary note, the bloodshed and disaster came *after* the regime was changed). They built spy planes and surveillance satellites we use to this day. They encouraged pro-American leaders throughout Southeast Asia. Notice that, geopolitically, things didn't fall apart for us til 1975-76, following Congress' betrayal of the Vietnamese and the Church Committee hearings eviscerated CIA's morale.

Even then, they managed some pretty interesting successes, sending a lot of aid to Solidarity in Poland, engineering large-scale sabotage of the Soviet economy, and a stunning blow to the Soviet military in Afghanistan (mostly carried out by the native Afghanis, not the Arabs who mostly came to party in the mountains and play with guns).

It is painful to realize that once upon a time a lone CIA officer deftly navigated the politics of a country as remote as Nepal and had agents in all their political parties as well as the police, and in 2000 we had no agents in a country which we were bombing.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Fri May 26, 12:10:00 PM:

The CIA also had stunning success in recruiting espionage sources in the KGB and Soviet military that lasted even after the Carter administration (to which I've referred in the past as the 'neutering' of the CIA) until Ames and Hannsen started selling them out.

Now it's a victory to get even one agent in an enemy organization. At one point, 2 or 3 was par for the course.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Fri May 26, 05:27:00 PM:

Mycroft, the CIA-backed coup which overturned the democratically-elected government of Dr. Mossadegh in 1953 is a problematical example of a success story.

Tactically, it may have been brilliant. Strategically, it led to the situation we, and the majority of the Iranian people, now have to endure with respect to the mullahs.

Of course, no-one can know for sure how events would have played out differently in Iran during the intervening years. All we can know is they would have played out differently.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun May 28, 09:02:00 PM:

I continue to believe that the containment of the Soviet Union that we got out of the shah from 1953 to 1979 was well worth it. That was the larger threat, notwithstanding the threat the Islamic Republic represents today. You can't avoid blowback, but this blowbackk is worth it.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Mon May 29, 08:57:00 AM:

You could also argue that Islamic fundamentalism was going to eventually be a problem no matter what we did in that part of the world. If so, maybe it's best that in coming to power the mullahs to some lesser or greater degree have discredited themselves. In the long run that too makes the 1953 CIA operation worth it. But the unintended consequences--not to mention the ironies--are ripe all around.  

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