Saturday, January 07, 2006

Myth And the CIA

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There are a lot of things believed about the Central Intelligence Agency, which are not rooted in fact. For instance, most people believe that the CIA is the oldest, largest, and most influential intelligence agency in American government, but none of those beliefs are accurate. Also, most Americans can quickly point to a supposed blunder by the CIA, but few are aware of Agency successes. This is actually quite by design. The Agency takes a perverse pride in holding a reputation for bumbling along without a clue; they have learned that such an image can actually cause their enemies to take them too lightly and drop their guard.

This is not to say that the CIA has not made mistakes, even commited crimes outside the scope of their authority, and they have people in their ranks who cannot resist misusing their position to build little empires, to the point of trying to manipulate national politics every so often. It is important to understand the CIA’s role in intelligence, not only as it has been since 1947, but as the new order of National Security designs it.

During World War 2, President Roosevelt often felt that he could not rely on the available intelligence to give him a clear and complete view about what was going on in the world, much less act on it where he would like. Army and Navy Intelligence (AI, ONI) often felt the ire of a frustrated FDR. William Donovan played on this discontent to build support for his own group, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which differed from other intelligence groups not only in terms of size and nature of information, but in Donovan’s belief that intelligence was like eggs; best used while fresh. As a result, OSS teams regularly pursued sabotage and direct application of the information they learned, and while this was not always effective in practice, it was refreshing enough that the OSS gained key support from the FDR Administration, although it made enemies in other parts of the government.

Fascinating as an overview of the Agency’s history might be, for here it is more important to understand that 9/11 radically changed the role and scope of the CIA. For a variety of reasons, the CIA does not generally conduct domestic intelligence operations or surveillance, except in special circumstances. In the world of anti-terrorism operations, this means that the CIA can only serve a limited role, however important its work. Yet review of the conditions and key elements of the 9/11 attacks also reveals the critical need for agents in place - HUMINT - which is the home ground of the Central Intelligence Agency. Also, as the new Director begins to clean house of the political malcontents, the need for a truly balanced focus in the Agency is becoming increasingly evident. As annoying as we may find people like Plame/Wilson, the fact that the New York Time’s recent breach of security most likely began with an Agency source, demonstrates that an overhaul of the Agency is badly overdue. This, of course, was another reason for the CIA’s relative demotion behind the new National Director of Intelligence. I leave the details of that redressing, to the men who have begun its work.

It would not be fitting to dismantle the CIA; the functions the Agency performs remain vital, and many agents perform admirably the responsibilities trusted to them. It is a difficult job at best, to do work that is designed to be ignored, where the hallmark of professional success is for people to think you too dull and stupid to possibly be an effective intelligence agent. Ironic, that liberals celebrate the likes of Plame and Wilson, who have pretended humility while negotiating book deals and magazine covers, all the while missing far greater work done by people whose self-control extends to their ego. Our nation may never know the names of most whose work changes history so directly, but we owe them an environment which does not attack them, either for rumors pursued by the paranoid, or for political intrigues held by empire-builders.

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