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Archive for April, 2005

[Originally published in The Valley News.]

About 25 years ago, some skeptical and cynical CIA officers in the clandestine service used to say, only half-jokingly, that we hoped there was a real clandestine service out there somewhere working for America’s interests abroad. If there was not, then we were in real trouble. We said that because some of us were realistic enough to acknowledge that we were not doing all we could do against our country’s enemies.

Now, in the wake of the report from the 9/11 commission and most recently a presidential commission headed by former Sen. Charles Robb and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman, we find that the Americans who have pushed for these reports and for reform, most of whom are politicians, have decided that the CIA is dysfunctional, suffering from a lack of competent employees and from stultified, unimaginative and cautious management.

It is the nature of a secret intelligence agency in today’s democratic America to be risk-averse. This has been more or less true since the CIA was implicated in the Watergate scandal, resulting in heavy congressional oversight and media scrutiny, which continue unabated today. When the CIA has moved away from such caution, as it did during the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan administration, it is reminded that caution is far safer than aggressive operations.

Now there are calls in Washington to “fix” or reform the CIA. Everything we hear and read in the press indicates quite clearly that the CIA is viewed to have lost its way sometime prior to the demise of the Soviet Union. What Americans now want the CIA to do is not completely clear, but a perfectly good case can be made that the CIA as now constituted, cannot be “fixed”. The real issue is whether or not America can or should create an organization capable of aggressively seeking out and clandestinely destroying terrorists abroad – the stated goal of the Bush administration.

The history of the CIA does not give hope that it can be changed into an aggressive, risk-taking organization. Even before Watergate, during the Cold War, senior managers of the Clandestine Service, that part of the CIA that runs our spy operations, were not consistently aggressive – managerially or operationally ó against the main Soviet target. If they were cautious against the Soviets during the Cold War, what could we have expected of them during the í90s?

In the early ‘90s, the “peace dividend”, implemented by a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic president, brought significant CIA budget cuts. The demise of the Soviet Union was seen as obviating the need for a large portion of the intelligence budget. By 2000, the Clandestine Service had become even more cautious and bureaucratic. It had atrophying management, too few officers who could speak the languages of the world of terrorism, and far too few who had the depth of experience needed to staff the CS. As always, CS leadership was risk-averse and tended toward self-perpetuation.

As organizations of all kinds grow older, they run the risk of stultification. Unless there are powerful, innovative forces at work within them that are either a part of, or at least supported and encouraged by management, the likelihood of failure is very high. Those innovative forces appear to have largely departed the CIA by the 1990s.

The CS has always been an inherently American organization, reflecting the American values of its time. It will never be a KGB or an Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence service during the two world wars. Anyone who wants to change that culture is on the wrong track. Can its work be improved? Possibly. However, if the job it will be asked to do will change materially, it will not be easy.

According to an article by Seymour Hersh in the Jan. 19 New Yorker, the Bush administration plans to switch from the CIA to the Pentagon for proactive, paramilitary, anti-terrorist operations simply because such activities if run out of the Pentagon, are viewed by the administration as outside the legal purview of congressional oversight. This would open new possibilities for more aggressive clandestine and paramilitary operations against overseas targets of the administration’s choice (“terrorist hunting”), presumably without congressional oversight. If the Pentagon shies away, as prudent military managers probably should, it could fall to the CIA, which, if you believe in our own American democratic values, is fortunately woefully ill-equipped to do that job and is likely to remain so.

In a perfect world, congressional oversight would prevent extra legal activities, but not inhibit activities consistent with American values.

“Terrorist hunting”, regardless of whether it is conducted by the CIA or the Pentagon, is the kind of activity that will mold world public opinion about the United States. As such, it is a very important issue that requires national debate before any significant change is implemented. Do we really want an intelligence service operating proactively without congressional oversight when oversight provides the balance between caution and over-aggressiveness? Do we want an intelligence effort that reflects American values, or do we want a KGB clone that is capable of assassinations and other “wet affairs”? If we do, do we really want our professional military establishment to carry out such activities? If not, will the CIA, or any successor organization, be up to that kind of task?

So far, we have lots of questions, little discussion and no consensus.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Washington and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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