The abuse of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by a series of presidents who have apparently regarded it as their own private army should not negate the positive role that a properly managed and directed intelligence service can play. The National Security Act of 1947 that created the CIA specifically cited the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as justification, noting that effective intelligence on adversaries would actually lessen the chance of conflict by providing warning when international tensions were increasing dangerously. Intelligence was seen as a positive tool to lessen the chance of war, and the Agency was envisioned as a central clearing house for information that would guide policymakers in an effective fashion.
President Harry Truman envisioned the Agency as a carefully controlled resource and would be appalled by what it has become. Back in the Forties many Americans were rightly leery of involvement with foreigners, and there was still a sense of "gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail." Some argued at the time that the use of spies and agents to gather information in foreign lands is intrinsically a bad policy, because it requires breaking the law in those countries and exploiting corruption. But, except for those who embrace complete isolationism, that argument ignores two things. First, every country has national interests that inevitably conflict with the interests of other countries. The competition for resources, for example, can be vitally important for a country’s well-being and the prosperity of its people. How a neighboring country will react in an international crisis is also critical information for policymakers. Second, every country that pursues its national interest competitively makes an effort to conceal what it is doing and what its true objectives might be. As a result, nearly every country is in constant unarmed conflict with competitor nations. For that reason, every country that is large enough to have a diplomatic service also has its spies, because information that provides insights into how other nations will behave and what their intentions are is essential to the security of any country that interacts in the international arena. And there is a considerable payback if it’s done right. A serious and sustained intelligence collection effort enables a country to work effectively against issues like international terrorism without have to stage invasions or launch cruise missiles.
Sadly, having a United States intelligence service as a potential national asset has not often worked very well in practice. The creation of the Agency as an organization with special though largely undefined powers operating outside the normal legal system proved to be too much of a temptation for the politicians. Instead of collecting and analyzing information, the major role of the newly minted CIA soon became what has been referred to as covert action. Covert action is little more than clandestine intervention in other countries to make them change their policies. In its most extreme form, it consists of bringing about regime-change, such as occurred with the assassination of Congolese President Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and the deposition of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. Mossadegh’s downfall had unanticipated consequences that continue to this day, leading to 26 years of rule by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and ending up with the current theocratic regime of the mullahs. If Mossadegh had remained in power, Iran might well have evolved into something like modern Turkey.
To cite another example, the CIA’s major covert action in Western Europe during the postwar years consisted of keeping the indigenous communist parties out of the respective governments. This was done by funding opposition parties and by supporting non-government organizations that had anti-communist agendas. Where it was successful, as in Italy, it created a false political dynamic that was in fact anti-democratic in that it relied on corruption to sustain the status quo. That corruption persists to this day and may be ineradicable, America’s enduring gift to the Italian people. And the bungling has continued. Most recently, the CIA support of Islamic fundamentalists in the war against the Russians in Afghanistan virtually created al-Qaeda, a consequence that is now described by the expression "blowback."
It has been argued, correctly, that covert action is often successful in the short term in that it brings about the desired result but that the development rarely turns out to be positive in the long term because the covert action in itself inhibits healthy political tendencies in the targeted country. Most covert actions support elites and the military because they promise stability and support the U.S. policy. As a result, they are essentially anti-democratic and regressive in nature. Today the CIA is actively involved in covert action operations throughout Eastern Europe and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Somalia. Not one of those countries is more stable or better governed because of the American intervention in its affairs. Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are all measurably worse off than they were five years ago. Whatever one’s politics might be, it is clear that most observers understand that intervention in other countries, be it by the 101st Airborne or the CIA, just does not work and does not make the world a better or safer place. Quite the contrary.
Given the foreign policy misadventures of the past eight years and the CIA’s involvement in implementing the Bush Doctrine, it is perhaps time to take advantage of new leadership in Washington to consider returning to basics and making the CIA again a resource for the collection and analysis of information, without any additional frills, feathers, or whistles. Apart from anything else, interfering in foreign countries is expensive and wastes resources that could be more effectively employed. It costs millions of dollars to subvert senior politicians or to set up and fund political parties, as has been done with generally terrible results in the successor states to the old Soviet Union. It costs a lot less to go out and collect information to safeguard the United States, but the flow of money in the wrong direction has meant that America’s spies are poorly trained and often ineffective. Many cannot speak the local language, and most "punch their tickets" by spending only two years in a country, not long enough to become acclimated. CIA Director Leon Panetta’s recent revelation that the Agency needs more and better language training was astonishing considering that the same pledge was made by George Tenet in 2002. Panetta indicated that only 30 percent of clandestine service officers are proficient in the language of the country they work in, a number similar to that of an also increasingly internationally illiterate U.S. foreign service. It makes one wonder what the other 70 percent do when they are overseas. And the concept of language proficiency is in itself a bit slippery. It is not fluency. An officer is considered proficient when he or she can engage in general conversation in social settings, but it does not include any discussion that is detailed or complicated in nature. And even that minimal standard is sometimes somewhat bogus in that there is pressure in the system to rate officers proficient so as not to hurt their careers.
So it is time to stop intervening and running covert actions and get back to basic spying as a national security tool. To do that, CIA management must recognize that the current crop of spies needs some upgrading and refreshment. There is no point in sending a CIA officer overseas unless he can speak the language well and is committed to staying in a country long enough to learn how things work. A chief of station who only speaks English should find a nice comfortable desk in Washington. Better still, he should find a place at the Department of Agriculture.
Americans are an innovative people, but they sometimes find out that innovation often has unfortunate consequences. Even though the concept of a national intelligence service was a good one in the troubled world of 1947 when the CIA was created, expanding the traditional role of a covert information service to include interfering in foreign politics was not a good idea. The Agency can still serve the national interest if it can be shorn of the interventionism and covert operations that have made it both ineffective and dangerous. Perhaps Panetta can explain that to President Barack Obama. Perhaps Obama will think it through and make the necessary changes, but more likely he will seduced by the prospect of having his own private army, just like his predecessors.