July 12, 2004


The Sorry State of the CIA: And why it's unlikely to improve. (Reuel Marc Gerecht, 07/19/2004, Weekly Standard)

Historians will probably view CIA reporting on the Iraq WMD threat as no less responsible than Agency analysis of the WMD threat from the former Soviet Union. That analysis certainly had its flaws, but these were the result primarily of questionable assumptions about Soviet statistics and economics and a failure to assess accurately the Soviet Union's willingness to feed its military complex at unsustainable levels. The CIA was certainly guilty then of "group think"--a charge now hurled by the Senate committee at the Directorate of Intelligence. But the CIA is always guilty of "group think" since Agency reports, and especially national intelligence estimates, are designed to reflect the collective wisdom of the organization and the intelligence community. That wisdom may be flawed--unconventional, brilliant insights into countries or people almost always come from individuals working alone or in very small groups, marrying their intuition with facts. For better or worse, the American intelligence community is allergic to this kind of analysis, which it usually condemns as "subjective." The Senate select committee, which has been receiving the Agency's "group think" pieces for decades, could have, perhaps, complained about this method and style earlier.

It is also absolutely true that George Tenet's CIA failed to penetrate Saddam Hussein's inner circle. And only penetrations at the highest political and scientific levels could have possibly given us evidence that Saddam Hussein had decided to give up his billion-dollar, decades-long quest to develop weapons of mass destruction. (And note the plural "penetrations": Against such a proficient counterespionage regime, there would have to be more than one penetration, assessed for protracted periods of time, before it would be possible to believe that the information from these assets was not disinformation.) But it is also true that the CIA failed to penetrate Moscow's inner circle in the Cold War and that the great agents we did have (the most valuable were probably scientists) were all volunteers. The CIA was not similarly lucky with Saddam Hussein's regime, whose Orwellian grip on Iraqi society was as savage as Joseph Stalin's on the USSR. It's a very good bet that the CIA has not had a single penetration in the inner circle of any of its totalitarian adversaries. The same is probably true for the French, British, and Israeli foreign intelligence services. In other words, one simply cannot judge the caliber of a Western espionage service by its ability to penetrate the power circles of totalitarian regimes. The difficulties are just overwhelming.

One can, however, grade intelligence services on whether they have established operational methods that would maximize the chances of success against less demanding targets--for example, against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, which is by definition an ecumenical organization constantly searching for holy-warrior recruits. It is by this standard that George Tenet failed and the CIA will continue to fail, assuming it maintains its current practices. But the odds are poor that the White House, Congress, and the press will condemn the Agency for its failure to develop a workable strategy and tactics against the Islamic terrorist target. The politically charged Iraq war, like Iran-contra before it, will now dominate Washington's view of the Agency.

Bert Lance famously opined: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. With the CIA we might ask: if it's never worked why would anyone believe it fixable? It's long past time to acknowledge that clandestine intelligence services simply don't work and to use Open Source Intelligence.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 12, 2004 3:42 PM

I certainly agree the CIA needs fixing. However, the press and others are running around flatly stating that Saddam never had any WMD. This seems an overstatement given his use of them in the 1980s and early 1990s, the cat and mouse game he played with the UN, and that every other country said he had them. I would just hate to find out that they were there and sent off before the war (i.e to Syria) and nobody bothers to look since these reports say he didn't have them.

Posted by: AWW at July 12, 2004 4:03 PM

clandestine intelligence services simply don't work

Oh, come now. First, realize that the CIA usually has its failures publicized, but its successes are kept secret. Second, there's a long list of successful clandestine actions. For the CIA, the U-2 and spy satellite programs come to mind. Before WWII, Nazi spies created havoc in Russia and helped induce Stalin to nearly destroy his own officer corps. A Soviet spy figured out that Japan was not going to attack Russia, allowing Stalin to send many divisions to the west. There are many more examples.

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 12, 2004 4:40 PM

The U-2 told us the USSR was no threat, yet we acted as if it was. It told as Cuba was a threat yet we acted as if it wasn't. What successes?

Posted by: oj at July 12, 2004 5:01 PM

Well, I'd dispute both your statements. The U-2 may have told us that the USSR was less of a threat than some thought, not that it was "no threat." And true information is valuable, whether it's correctly acted on or not.

As for Cuba, certainly Kennedy acted as if it were a threat. He blockaded Cuba and we nearly had a nuclear war over the issue. He might not have done all you would have liked (Bay of Pigs air cover, etc.), but he certainly didn't ignore the issue.

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 12, 2004 5:20 PM

not just no threat but that it was failing spectacularly. Had the Eisenhower administration simply published the U2 photos it might have shortened the Cold War by decades and avoided the Kennedy fiasco. We did publish the ones of Cuba, which argues for more openness, not less.

Posted by: oj at July 12, 2004 5:56 PM

"If it ain't broke, you're not trying."

-- Red Green

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 12, 2004 6:26 PM

Some libertarians would say that the CIA gave good information about the potential threat or lack thereof from the Soviets, but the Military-industrial complex intentionally pretended that it was a greater threat, in order to keep the Defense Budget high.

Posted by: h-man at July 12, 2004 6:44 PM


They consistently overestimated the military threat, though not as much as the neocons did. Discussing it in the open would have been so humiliating for the Soviets as to shake them apart far earlier than did Reagan's Westminster speech.

Posted by: oj at July 12, 2004 6:52 PM