Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Cleaning up the Langley mess 

In a year which saw so many other sacred cows go to the slaughter, another myth is dying a slow and painful death right now: that of the CIA as a sinister right-wing cabal. Like many other political myths, this one has been perpetuated by generations of left-wing critics who have been attacking the Agency over its nefarious involvement in exotic Third World hot spots as well as (for the braver, or more deluded critics) its alleged illegal meddling in domestic matters, which in turn could include anything from spying on anti-war protesters to involvement in the assassination of John F Kennedy.

The truth of the matter is that the CIA never was a sinister right-wing cabal. From its very first days as a continuator of the wartime OSS, the ranks of the Agency were dominated by members of the liberal establishment.
Charles McCarry, who retired from the CIA to write atmospheric spy novels, recalls that in all his years of working at Langley he's never met a Republican. That might have been fine in the 1950s and 60s when a muscular strain of anti-communist liberalism was still alive and well, not so fine afterwards when the WASP establishment decided to lurch to the left.

The last few decades of the CIA's history present us with a rather dismal track record of failure and substandard performance on everything from assessing the true state of the Soviet Union to its intelligence failures prior to S11. I'm usually not one to criticise spy agencies; the craft of gathering and analysing intelligence is a difficult and unenviable enough task in our age which expects certainty and perfection. But the fact that the CIA just doesn't seem to get it right so often nowadays suggests that its problems have less to do with inherent difficulties of spycraft and more with systemic problems within the intelligence community.

The CIA's recent
covert campaign against the President is just one example of the trend. Just as any other entrenched bureaucracy, the Agency has its own comfort zone and is naturally disinclined to internal reform. More worrying, just as the State Department, the CIA seems to have its own agendas and foreign policy, which it is unwilling to adjust to those of the current Administration. In an ideal world, one would expect a public service agency to merely provide the executive with information, advice and support, and leave the actual conduct of government to elected officials. This alas has not been the case. As John McCain commented yesterday, "This is a dysfunctional agency and in some ways a rogue agency."

Critics of the Bush Administration will undoubtedly portray the current efforts to reform the CIA as a ham-fisted attempt by the White House to crush the Agency's independence and make the body totally subservient to the Administration's policy making. Sadly, in reality there's no independence left to crush.


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