Friday, May 05, 2006

Free Fall

Speaking of spin, our friends at Reuters can always be counted on to faithfully publish the latest DNC talking points. Consider their dispatch on the impact of today's intelligence shake-up: CIA Health Questioned as Goss Quits.

Over the course of twelve paragraphs or so, the Reuters correspondent manages to quote four critics of Goss and his reform plan. Chief among them is California Congresswoman Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. According to Ms. Harman, the agency is now in "free fall," a phrase that will likely be repreated (and often) on the Sunday morning pundit shows.

There's really nothing new in any of the criticisms leveled in the Reuters report, but the headline is a rather odd choice. Insisting that the CIA is currently in "poor health" seems to suggest that the agency was in better shape before Goss arrived, or when Ms. Harman's party occupied the White House.

Such assertions are, of course, laughable. During the Clinton years, funding for our intelligence community ran as much as seven percent below what the agencies asked for--what the Democrats would describe as budget cuts. Additionally, Clinton's succession of CIA directors--James Woolsey, John Deutch and George Tenent--did little to address the agency's glaring deficiencies in collection and analysis, paving the way for the 9-11 disaster.

But Clinton doesn't deserve all of the blame. Truth be told, we're still paying for intelligence mistakes made more than three decades ago, beginning with the Pike and Church committees in the 1970s. While those panels exposed agency excesses, they also caused undue damage to our human intelligence (HUMINT) and covert operations capabilities. The CIA grew extremely risk-adverse, unwilling to try anything that might incur the wrath of Congress. This problem were exacerbated under the leadership of Jimmy Carter's DCI, Admiral Stansfield Turner, who continued the migration away from human collection and covert ops. Turner, arguably the worst DCI in the agency's history, insisted that we could gather all the information we needed with technical systems, including spy satellites. The decline in CIA HUMINT and covert ops that began under Gerald Ford, accelerated rapidly under Carter and Admiral Turner.

While there was a notable attempt to rebuild HUMINT and covert ops during the Reagan Administration, but the Iran-Contra scandal put a halt to those efforts. Analysis also suffered. In the 1980s, the conventional wisdom at Langley was that the former Soviet Union was "here to stay." Meanwhile, the agency's field agents and analysts largely missed the rise of Islamofacism, despite their support of the mujahedin in Afghanistan. Couple those failures with post-Cold War cutbacks under Bush #41 and Clinton, and the stage for massive intel failures was already set.

In other words, the decline of the CIA's "health" began long before Porter Goss arrived at Langley. Similarly, any successful effort to "save" the patient must continue for years to come. Critics and journalists suddenly concerned about the agency's "declining" health are a bit like someone who smokes two packs a day for 40 years, and wonders how they got lung cancer. Ms. Harman's comment about a spy agency in free fall makes for a good sound bite, but in reality, the CIA reached terminal velocity long before Porter Goss arrived at Langley. Is it too late to pull the rip cord?

1 comment:

Wanderlust said...


While I don't recall the particulars of the Pike Commission, I do remember some of the context behind the Church Commission investigations.

If I recall correctly, Church was p*ssed off at CIA for its escapades that took it way beyond its original scope, including JENNIFER and MKULTRA - and MKULTRA's progeny, including MONARCH.

There is a *lot* of what I would consider to be "disinformation" about such programs, and for many, the mere mention of those names represents a trip into Alice's Wonderland. But even the publicly-available, heavily redacted documents of MKULTRA (as an example) give a view into an agency that had wandered far, far away from its charter to collect information. Project JENNIFER, regardless of its intent, became a lightning rod for all the Agency's detractors to say, "See! I KNEW that CIA was wasting taxpayer dollars for nothing!" Perhaps Church was right to bring the Agency to heel at that point.

However, the risk of corrective actions is that the person/group being corrected will go too far in trying to avoid the things that got it punished to begin with. So instead of returning to its original charter of collecting HUMINT, CIA became, like NASA, a political animal that saw survival as feeding off its Congressional benefactors (and not p*ssing them off) instead of focusing on what those agencies were created to accomplish.

And CIA, like NASA, is now a mere shell of itself, living in its glory days of the height of the Cold War (1960's) instead of adjusting for the times.

Both agencies, IMHO, should be gutted, restructured, renamed, and started from scratch. As the saying goes, you can't put new wine into old wineskins.

/just sayin'...