Friday, February 17, 2006

Spies Like Paul Pillar

One of my "guilty pleasure" DVDs is Spies Like Us, a long-forgotten Chevy Chase-Dan Aykroyd vehicle from the mid-80s. In the film, Chase plays Emmit Fitz-Hume, a low-level State Department official and Aykroyd is Austin Milbarge, an equally anonmyous code breaker in the Pentagon. Both are hastily recruited and trained as field agents, with a mission to penetrate the former Soviet Union.

In reality, their characters are decoys, designed to divert Russian attention away from another spy team, tasked to steal (and launch) a Russian ICBM toward the United States. It's supposed to provide a test of a black world missile defense program, run by an Air Force general (Steve Forrest). Spies Like Us was a bit of a bust at the box office, but it is a surprisingly funny film that lampoons (among other things) the Cold War, Fail-Safe-genre movies from the 1960s, and the CIA's penchant for ineffective cover operations. In the film, virtually all of agency's activities--including covert agent insertion--are run by poorly-disguised front operation called the "Ace Tomato Company."

Two of my favorites characters in the film are a couple of CIA officers named Ruby and Keyes (Bruce Davison and the late William Prince). As willing accomplices in the ICBM operation, the CIA men are quite willing to send Fitz-Hume and Milbarge to their deaths, but when the plot unravels and they face arrest and imprisonment, Ruby and Keyes try to shift the blame to their military partners. "We were kidnapped," they claim, "That's right, kidnapped!" With their rep ties, Ivy League elitism and blame-someone-else mentality, Ruby and Keyes perfectly capture a CIA "culture" (real or imagined) that has produced more than its share of intelligence failures.

I don't think Bruce Davison or William Prince ever met Paul Pillar, but there does seem to be a striking resemblance between their characters and the former CIA official turned Bush Administration criticr. We wrote about Mr. Pillar a few days ago. Now, another former CIA officer (Guillermo Christensen) has a timely piece at that does an even better job at exposing Pillar's hypocrisy. As Mr. Christensen notes, Pillar was responsible and (ostensibly) stood behind thousands of pages of pre-war intelligence that supported the invasion of Iraq. If he disagreed with those assessments, then Pillar (as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia) was uniquely positioned to counter those arguments, and offer competing analysis.

Instead, Pillar betrayed long-standing professional practices at the agency and became a vocal, public critic of the Bush Administration--and the very intelligence he helped produce. The result of this, according to Christensen, is a further undermining of the CIA's tenuous credibility with elected officials and policy makers. Because of the Pillar's conduct, Christensen believes that future leaders will be less likely to turn to the agency, fearing that conversations with CIA officials and finished analytical reports will be leaked to the press by malcontents inside the agency. Pillar and his fellow critics have actually pioneered a new method of plausibile deniability in the intelligence field--if your assessments are off, blame the intelligence consumer, and accuse them of trying to silence you. With (fomer) spies like Paul Pillar around, who needs enemies?


Wanderlust said...

spook86, someone much smarter than me once commented that you can't put "old wine into new wineskins".

IMHO, the Company is a very old wineskin, one that suffers from mission creep almost as badly as NASA. Like NASA, the CIA has tried to become all things to all people, while the truth is that the Agency has strayed so far from its original mission as to be virtually unrecognizable.

The last time an agency was disbanded, as I recall, was in 1957(?) when the old NACA was morphed into NASA. For a time, NASA had a clear-cut mission, and its goal was aligned with that of Congress enough to get funding, manpower, and the support of the populace to do its job.

If ever there were a good time to do the same with the CIA, it's now: GWB is in his second term, so he can spend political currency to make it happen, assuming that Negroponte and Goss have a pair between them, and that Negroponte can finally wake up to understanding just how the byzantine and ineffectual the intelligence infrastructure is, that he got saddled with.


jobob said...

I have been reading this blog for awhile and You sound to me like you know what you are talking about.

I thought I would recount a exchange that took place on another web site

[url=] ARRSE [/url]

Which is a unofficial British army site. It is a good site and a lot of debate takes place there ,with people who have a very differnt point of view.


A recent thread took place on Arrse [/url]

debating the motives of the NSA leakers. My position was the leakers were Bush haters or lefties.

A comment was made by a poster who claimed to have inside knowledge

[quote]Take for example, the NSA domestic surveillence issue. This was opened up to the public because some people on the inside (and let's avoid the perjorative term traitor for the moment- because it's another gross oversimplification at best, and bullshit at worst) saw a set of circumstances whereby the conditions under which the USIC was operating appeared to contradict both statute law and established ideas about US strategic culture. The professionals would love nothing more than for Congress and the Executive branch to sit down and try to figure out exactly what 'being at war' means and what their political leaders are willing to sacrifice and/or endure in order to conduct the war successfully.

Every member of the IC I have spoken to thinks that the Congressional investigation into NSA's "Program" is entirely appropriate and will help them determine in future what they can and cannot lawfully do. The current head-shed got into the game around the time of the Church and Pike Committees in the mid 70s, which established appropriate congressional oversight and welcomed it. Their main problem is with the oversight system is that Congress isn't performing the task consistently[/quote].

He further stated

[quote]So on your list of traitors you would include the current and a former DDI, the CIA's Deputy Assistant Director for Analysis and Production, the Director of CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence and 2 former Vice-Chairmen of the National Intelligence Council. It was their views I stated in my previous post, not my own. (I got chatting to them over a glass of wine or two and dinner on Thursday night- nice chaps.) While they do not condone the public disclosure of a classified program, they have the maturity and mental capacity to understand why they did it and the foresight to recognise that if this discussion is not held and the "RoE" are clearly established, the chances are that there are going to be more disclosures, not to mention a serious degradation in the quality of product as people become more risk-averse.[/quote]

I realize that after all the leaks The CIA is in damage control mode but I find it hard to believe that The CIA in general is so tolerant of leaks or the leakers.

Perhaps Spook86 you have some insights as to the validity of truthfulness of the CIA altitudes as expressed by the Thread at Arrse.