What You Should Think About the Central Intelligence Agency

December 22, 2007

“Spies cannot be employed without a certain intuitive sagacity.”


People seeking fame and public honor are not well-served by careers in espionage. This is especially true for operatives, analysts, and support personnel employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. It is no false appeal for sympathy when CIA employees point out that their agency takes all the blame for bad work product yet normally takes no credit for good work product. After all, half the point of covert intelligence gathering is to remain covert. Public scrutiny of a fresh success only reduces the chance that it might be repeated.

For different yet equally valid reasons, the CIA and the Supreme Court have tended to be apolitical as institutions. After all, reality is what it is, regardless of what candidates may claim or a President may desire. In its best moments, neither the rhetoric nor the wishes of public officials alter the findings of the CIA. Alas, as with the Supreme Court, effective corporate dominion over the U.S. federal government has made bad politics an inescapable reality for all public servants performing particularly influential work in Washington D.C.

It may be that this is a quirk of perverted idealism. The context in which tax rate cuts actually generate revenue increases is extremely narrow. Yet this does not prevent many politicians, pundits, and their followers from clinging to the belief that tax rate cuts are always certain to generate enormous increases in productivity and revenue collection. Sex education focused so intently on abstinence messages as to deprive students of crucial factual information about human sexuality will tend to increase rates of teen pregnancy. Yet that reality does not prevent many public figures from endorsing the perpetuation of ignorance as a matter of public policy.

With that in mind, it seems less surprising that a Presidential administration eager to bring about Saddam Hussein’s execution should take action without regard for the underlying reality that his regime never belonged on any accurate top ten list of foreign threats to American national security. When Ambassador Joe Wilson undertook a viable, if not exactly covert, effort to gather intelligence related to allegations that Saddam Hussein’s government was intent on acquiring Nigerian uranium, it was predictable that White House officials would refuse to let any underlying reality trump their propaganda point on that issue.

Less predictable was that their effort to discredit his findings would take the form of gross misconduct that compromised the covert status of an experienced CIA operative. This had the immediate effect of endangering the lives of intelligence agents and collaborators ferreting out secrets from the tangled world of high finance in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations. Supervisors had no choice but to shut down that operation immediately. Now neither the public nor the intelligence community may ever get to the bottom of nefarious dealings between wealthy Saudi jihadists and international terrorist organizations.

Yet that political attack on someone who was, at that time, an apolitical public servant also had the long term effect of spreading fear throughout the ranks of the fearless. CIA field operatives are as well-trained as the most elite combatants in military special forces. Not only are they prepared to kill by surprise without hesitation, but they are also trained to face certain death without reservation. However, they are also trained to keep their work and their professional identities a secret. If anything at all scares a CIA operative, it is the thought of being outed to the public in a major media outlet.

Career field personnel with the CIA may well be our nation’s most precious human resource. The actual number of them is rightly regarded as a state secret, but details of recruitment and training procedures indicate they must be less numerous than Navy SEALs. The unnecessary loss of a single field agent can have negative consequences for national security. That all of them should be distracted or intimidated by thoughts of their greatest fear becoming a reality is a truly serious matter.

Thus we see the rush into the Iraq war not only being advanced by public attacks on the Wilson investigation into Nigerian uranium commerce, but also sustained by the implicit threat that raising doubts about White House misinformation would amount to career suicide. Though the circumstances of an analyst are not the same as those of a field operative, the interaction between the CIA’s pathological secrecy and this threat of publicity may explain why there was so little authoritative dissent in the wake of “mushroom cloud” rhetoric about Iraq.

History retains crucial facts. Saddam Hussein was a narcissistic tyrant deeply in love with his own skin — not some Hollywood villain obsessed with building a doomsday device. His interest in weapons of mass destruction prior to the first Gulf War was real, but so too was his interest in personal survival (not to mention retaining power) in the aftermath of that conflict. Only deep ignorance about the nature of Saddam Hussein, and perhaps human nature itself, could produce an analysis concluding that his regime persisted in developing weapons of mass destruction or that he would ever pursue an agenda that might justify a second American invasion of Iraq.

This view is confirmed by his actions during the rush to war. The imposition of UN weapons inspectors was no small thing. It amounted to a national humiliation. No doubt most U.S. Presidents would have no tolerance for similar intrusions into our most secure and secretive government facilities. Yet when American forces took up positions suitable for launching a large scale attack, Saddam Hussein immediately welcomed UN inspectors into Iraq. To them no territory was forbidden and no door was closed.

Preliminary assessments from people on the ground in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction indicated clearly that Hussein’s government was not working on such deadly devices. To people who were in touch with the realities of world events, this was entirely unsurprising. To people whipped into a frenzy of bloodlust by political hate media and other sources of misinformation, the findings of UN inspectors were beyond surprising — they were simply not to be believed. The facts on the ground, as assessed by people actually present on the relevant ground, took a back seat to the talking points of zealous warmongers.

Yet CIA Director George Tenet (presumably with some support from underlings) was complicit in this hoodwinking of the American people. Now thousands of brave Americans are dead, tens of thousands of Iraqi bystanders are dead, many more of each have been deprived of limbs or sanity, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, all to combat a threat that did not actually exist. It is not even clear if the people of Iraq today are better or worse off than they were living under the rule of a selfish and sadistic tyrant.

It is hard to assess just how well the CIA functions as 2007 comes to a close. No doubt Porter Goss did some damage, but it may also be the case that backlash against the politicization of intelligence gathering has done some good. Ultimately, when it comes to what you should think about the CIA, the most crucial insight is the legitimacy of that backlash. As a nation we are strong to the degree that our intelligence gathering resources, acting as our collective eyes, see as clearly and truly as possible. To the degree that this national vision is clouded by political pressures, it becomes impaired and diminishes our ability to develop sound foreign policy goals.

In the end, reality will be what it is, regardless of ideology or ambition. It is true that hopeful national leaders can rally vast resources to change the face of history. Yet this change can only take effect in the future. No amount of hope or fear can alter the reality of what has already occurred. A wise President will understand that gathering intelligence is about getting at the truth. It is extremely foolish to corrupt the best available means of seeking truth for purposes of propping up a false narrative. To do so promotes attempts to interact with that false narrative — attempts that are destined to turn out badly when plans based on lies crash headlong into incompatible realities