The CIA has been in the headlines lately, and not for the right reasons. It got the blame for failing to prevent 9/11. The assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were also way off-base (even though the mistake was a prudent one that erred on the wide of a worst-case scenario, and evidence exists that at least some WMD may have moved to Syria). Now, CIA officers are leaking their criticism of the President’s foreign policy to the press, most notably, the Washington Post. This is giving the CIA a black eye in the eyes of just about everyone, and it’s grossly unfair to the many patriotic Americans working there, and this has not happened overnight.
The problems started in the 1970s with the Church and Pike Committees. CIA got a lot of heat, often for doing things (trying to kill Fidel Castro) they were told to do (by John F. Kennedy, among others). Even a success like Project Jennifer (the retrieval of a Soviet Golf-class SSB by the Glomar Explorer) resulted in flak from Congressman Otis Pike. The CIA very quickly became very risk-averse as a result of the beatings.
What capabilities in the areas of covert operations and human intelligence Frank Church and Otis Pike didn’t take out were halted by DCI Stansfield Turner. CIA got back into the covert operations business under Bill Casey, but again Congressional meddling (specifically, a series of leaks) led to the Iran-Contra scandal. A series of scandals involving CIA sources in the 1990s led to a new round of scrubbing.
The press coverage of the scandals, including one instance where Robert Torricelli revealed a CIA source, caused other sources to stop cooperating. The CIA is now facing a new problem. Some career employees, used to the more risk-averse culture, have begun to take their disagreements to sympathetic reporters. This has led to a different type of distrust. Much like an attorney and his client, the CIA and the President used to have confidentiality when it came to the advice. Today, books like Imperial Hubris and the recent leak of a National Intelligence Estimate traced to CIA Operative Paul R. Pillar are undermining the trust even more. This is placing the country at risk. If the President of the United States cannot trust the CIA, vital warnings could be ignored. The President and policy makers need to listen when CIA presents worst-case estimates. That said, there will be times when inaction is riskier than inaction – like Iraq, for instance. At the same time, the people who are in CIA have three obligations: First, they need to look at the situation honestly, and to give their best assessment. Second, they need to listen to criticism – particularly if others have a different take on the same evidence. Third, if the policy of an Administration is something they cannot stand, rather than undermining the President and the agency they serve, they should resign rather than undermine not only the Agency they work for, but also the national security of the country they are paid to protect. While I have disagreed with the assessment of General Anthony Zinni on Iraq, I have nothing but respect for his conduct as it pertained to his opposition to liberating Iraq.
It is my opinion that Pillar and others like him are not representative of all the people who work with the CIA. Far from it. Many of them are dedicated. It is, as they say, a few bad apples who get the press that makes CIA look bad, with ample help from Hollywood – which jumps at an excuse to paint CIA in a bad light when they can get away with it. That said, things do go wrong. CIA Director Porter Goss hopefully will be able to turn things around. If he fails, this country will be in danger. That said, he is not the only person on the hot spot. Congress needs to back off and let CIA do its thing – and when the heat comes form human rights groups and the media, Congress ought to stick up for CIA instead of piling on for political points. Congress shares a lot of the blame – for failing to back up the CIA when the CIA takes chances to protect this country, even when feathers get ruffled, hands get dirty, and things go wrong. The CIA has been operating with a lack of political support – and this is the biggest problem that they face. This lack of political support is, in my opinion, a direct cause for incidents like Iran-contra and the Pillar flap. Once CIA gets the sense that they will be backed up, healing the breaches will be easier.