CIA Critic Finds Agency Set Up For Failure

CIA Critic Finds Agency Set Up For Failure


Seal of the Central Intelligence AgencyThe International Herald Tribune has an opinion piece in it highly critical of the CIA. It makes one wonder if the guys in that agency have a mindset that much different from the automakers in Detroit. All have plenty of money to throw at a problem, but they seem to fail wherever they turn.

First, let’s start with Public Enemy Number One:

By the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, every serving CIA officer – indeed, every American – knew that the agency had one prime mission: “Get him!” But, after more than seven years and billions of dollars, we have failed. I recognize much has been done to damage Al Qaeda but, make no mistake, no amount of “rendition” of bin Laden lieutenants can mask our failure to bring to justice the man who ordered 9/11.

George Bush is leaving office in a few weeks, but after seven years, no one can find Osama bin Laden.

Then there is the stuff the spies should know because they have billions of dollars and the world’s best technology at their disposal.

There are other failures too, less dramatic perhaps but of even greater consequence. The clandestine creep of nuclear know-how threatens to put the worst weapons into the worst hands. If North Korea or Iran, or Shangri-La for that matter, claims the right to develop a nuclear fist, our intelligence services should know every detail about that program. Yet we collectively fail over and over again when North Korea tests a missile or nuclear reactor construction in the eastern Syrian desert come as a surprise.

The writer, Art Brown, is a 25-year veteran of the CIA. He says the CIA fails at the human level because of a “cocoon of secrecy that breeds distrust of outsiders.”

The CIA culture is steeped in mistrust of the outside world, but that is where they must get the information to determine what is happening. Brown makes the startling comment that few CIA officers have BlackBerrys, but many do not even have an internet connection at their desk.

In the information age, who in the world sits at a desk doing a meaningful job without an internet connection? That sums up the CIA problem too. Information is the CIA’s job, but they seem determined to make failure a built-in option in it’s processing.

Brown points that out with the CIA quality control problem. Here is a case in point. An al Qaeda threat emerges to attack U.S. military bases in foreign countries. Yet a web search finds some of those countries do not have U.S. bases.

Imagine what even a dial-up connection would in that case.

According to Brown, the CIA culture emphasizes quantity over quality, and it gets it.

In Brown’s years with the CIA, he says that he never recalls anyone being fired or even demoted.

The problem with the CIA is accountability and accuracy. Hopefully, with the Obama administration new outlook, some of that change will spill into the dinosaur-like ways of this nation’s chief intelligence agency.


  • George Mauer

    I just don’t see why we need the CIA at all. Yes, gathering intelligence on foreign threats is necessary, but it is almost by definition a military affair. Sure the military doesn’t have those resources now but give it the CIAs resources and make them play by the rules and live up to the standards of those whose job it is to defend our country.

    Seriously, I’ve never heard a good counter-argument. Jimmy the Dhimmy, Kranky Kritter, someone, please straighten me out here.

  • mike mcEachran

    No internet?? I’ve heard this a few times, but I just can’t believe it. If it’s true, it must be for securtity reasons. They must have an intranet or something, right? It can’t possibly be becuase they don’t trust those new fangled machines. Can it?

  • George Mauer

    It can be because they’re afraid of being hacked. Granted, an internet connection for everyone increases the chances but the solution is to hire good system administrators and technically savvy personnel not to cut the cord entirely.

    Too bad none of us have any intention of ever working for those guys.

  • John Burke

    First, an answer to George’s question about why CIA and why not just rely on the military. CIA is charged with collecting and analyzing intelligence on poltical, diplomatic and economic affairs, as well as actual and potential military and other threats. The military is neither interested in nor suited to much of this work. In any case, the various Pentagon intel agencies along with the intelligence branches of the separate services do collect a great deal of their own intel.

    Turning to the op-ed by the former CIA officer, Mr. Brown, he is certainly harder on his former colleagues than is warranted. The notion that all else since 9/11 is a failure because bin Laden is not dead or in custody is surely an exaggeration and in any case, it’s not at all clear that it’s CIA’s fault.

    In fact, a little googling on his part would remind him that a small number of CIA officers, comprising a half dozen teams, swooped into Afganistan and within weeks of 9/11 forged alliances with local Afgans and had al Qaeda and the Taliban running for their lives. The failure to block their exit in the mountains around Tora Bora was absolutely not the fault of anyone at CIA. And let’s remember also that CIA contrived a number of plans to capture or kill bin Laden up to 2000 — Michael Scheuer claims he knows of 13 such plans, and several were well documented by the 9/11 Commission — that were never put into operation.

    Brown’s broader critique is a bit nebulous. Are we to believe seriously that penetrating opaque governments and societies like North Korea or the old Soviet Union or Saddam’s Iraq or Assad’s Syria, places where swift and secret death was or is the typical punishment for any hint of spying for the regime’s enemies, would be made easier with the help of assorted entrepreneurs, scientists, and free lance journos? There is a lot of expertise in our nation that might be tapped better on a host of issues, and the fact is that the intel community does a great deal of that. Of what use all such inputs might be to recruiting agents in Pyongyang is another matter.

    Applying these ideas to the terrorism threat strikes me as even less likely to be fruitful; what CIA needs most in that regard is Pashtun tribesmen willing to rat out al Qaeda and other radicals. Good luck with that.

    Overall, what Brown doesn’t get into at all — and this is where his experience could be enlightening — is the problem of overly high expectations of intelligence. CIA and other intelligence agencies are very good at finding out specific things, when they have the time and resources. In 1996-2000, they did a great job of tracking bin Laden’s movements and gaining a pretty good sense of al Qaeda’s activities even though he was headquartered at his “farm” outside Khandahar deep in Taliban country.

    They also did a fair job of penetrating Kremlin secrecy on targeted matters — so they were able, for example, to give President Kennedy the timely, critical information that the Soviets had not yet completed the delivery of operational missiles to Cuba in 1962.

    But they are magicians who can divine information that is kept closely secret, and they are not soothsayers when it comes to big trends in the world.

    Whenever we don’t know in advance something we wish we’d known, we tend to call it an “intelligence failure,” and blame anonymous CIA officers who are the only people unable to defend themselves.