Intelligence: The CIA Gets Religion, Sort Of


October 4, 2005: The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) is getting religion, and shedding a lot of old Cold War habits. The official policy is now to get more people overseas, fewer people sitting in headquarters "supervising", more people who speak foreign languages, more people taking chances and more emphasis on accurately analyzing information, not just collecting huge piles of it.

In the late 1970s, Congress put a lot of restrictions on the CIA. This was in response to the CIA doing things some members of Congress did not agree with. The CIA had come out of World War II (where it was the OSS) with a freewheeling attitude that the ends justified the means. That didn't work during the Cold War, where winning was not as important as how you went about it. Wartime ruthlessness was now discouraged (or, in the case of some laws and regulations issued in the late 1970s, made illegal.) So the CIA reacted by becoming risk-averse and willing to tell Congress and the president what they wanted to hear. Fewer people were sent into the field, where most of the embarrassing incidents occurred. Since the main adversary was the Soviet Union, spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping systems were adequate for keeping track of the vast military forces of the Soviet Union. Bribes to Soviet officials provided a nice espionage network inside the Soviet Union. Life was good. But that all changed when the Cold War ended. Now the enemy was in difficult to penetrate places like North Korea, Iran and Islamic countries in general. Speaking Russian and sitting in an officer looking at satellite photos no longer cut it.

Announcing change is not the same as carrying it out. After a generation of avoiding risk, it's going to be difficult to make the switch without losing a lot of the current management. That's something to watch out for. There have been a lot of new hires in the last few years, and some increase in middle-management departures. But will the CIA be bold, and risk the wrath of a righteous Congress and media? That remains to be seen.


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