I doubt that proposals for partial reform of the CIA make sense. Not after reading the major histories of the CIA (e.g., Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes). Even so, this specimen looks unusually daft: “A New Deal for The CIA“, David Ignatius, op-ed in the Washington Post, 17 September 2009.
It opens with the usual romantic tales of daring spys. The actual history is far more sordid, the actual results too often bad for both America and the nations subject to the CIA’s manipulation. The second half returns to the real world.
What’s required is a new approach to intelligence based on the need for political sustainability. This, in turn, will require a degree of transparency with Congress and the public that may make the intelligence community uncomfortable. But frankly, after the torture debate, there’s no other way.
… When we read about waterboarding and other techniques that shock the conscience, it’s easy to lose sight of what intelligence agents like my friend Jeannie do most of the time — and their importance in protecting the country. The interrogation policies may have been directed by the George W. Bush administration, but it is the CIA and its people who have paid the price.
The question is how to put the pieces back together — how to restore public trust in intelligence. I heard powerful presentations on that subject last Saturday in Geneva by Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, and Sir David Omand, former coordinator of British intelligence. They were speaking at a meeting of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. (Full disclosure: I am a member of that group’s advisory council.)
Hayden drew a Venn diagram to explain where the CIA needs to operate. First, he drew three circles that represent the traditional parameters: An activity must be technically feasible, operationally relevant and lawful. Then he added a fourth requirement. The activity must also be “politically sustainable,” through more transparency with Congress and the public. “We need a program that does not have an on-off switch every two years,” he said.
Omand argued that the intelligence community must accept a “paradigm shift.” The old “secret state,” in which intelligence agencies could do pretty much as they liked, is gone. In its place is a “protecting state,” in which the public gives the intelligence agencies certain powers needed to keep the country safe. It’s a “citizen-centric approach,” Omand explained, based on the reality of mutual dependence. The spies need information from the community (especially the large Muslim population in Britain), and the public needs protection.
In this new “grand bargain,” Omand stressed, the public must understand that if it decides — for moral and political reasons — to limit certain activities (as in interrogation or surveillance techniques), it also accepts the risk that there will be “normal accidents.”
This history of the CIA has been largely a successful effort to avoid giving the public the information necessary to evaluate our ‘secret state’ — or the ability to influence (let alone control) its operation. I see few signs of change, despite Hayden’s assertions. Most likely the current efforts are just Kubuki — like previous efforts.
Matthew Yglesias comments on this at ThinkProgress:
On one level, who could disagree with this? On another level, how is it that we’re having this conversation? This isn’t East Germany. Of course intelligence services are supposed to be “citizen-centric” rather than have the ability to “do pretty much as they liked.” But what’s the bargain here? My general understanding of the bargain between the law and citizens is that citizens are supposed to follow the law and in exchange they don’t get subjected to criminal penalties. That’s the bargain I have. And people who work at the CIA are also American citizens, right? Subject to the law, right?
As usual, the comments on his site are more interesting than the post.
(#14) Rich in PA Says:
Ignatius should do PR for General Zod when he runs in 2012. Regrettably Zod’s 2008 campaign website is now off-line, but the gist of it was that if elected, we would give him our wealth and pledge eternal allegiance to him, and in return he would permit us to live. This seems to be the CIA’s position.
(#17 ) Glen Tomkins Says:
A Devil’s Bargain
“And people who work at the CIA are also American citizens, right? Subject to the law, right?”
Of course they aren’t subject to the law. The whole point of having secret police/secret intelligence agencies like the CIA, NSA, DIA, etc. is so, in the Mission Impossible formulation, “The Secretary will disavow all knowledge.” We wouldn’t have needed the CIA unless we intended it to do nasty and illegal things we didn’t want to have to acknowledge we as a nation were doing.
Secrecy has never been about increased effectiveness. Let any agency work in secret, and of course its work product will deteriorate in value to nothing, as its brutality goes up to compensate. Why would anyone imagine that our secret police was going to be any different from all of the other secret police forces in history, and that we would end up with anything other than something that looks like the KGB, or the Securitate? Secrecy is about letting the public luxuriate in the blissful state of not having to think. Well, not having to think until the real-world consequences of letting a secret police loose catch up to us.
No, the secret police aren’t subject to our laws. Let’s hope cosmic justice doesn’t prevail, and we never have to face ourselves the full consequences that we unleashed on other nations when we created a secret police and let them loose on the world. But it’s going to have to remain a mere hope, because we gave up control of our fate two generations ago.
Another interesting article about the CIA
Well-worth reading: “The Secret History – Can Leon Panetta move the C.I.A. forward without confronting its past?“, Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, 22 June 2009
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest are:
Posts about the CIA:
- The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2005
- The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State, 10 December 2007
- A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics, 5 March 2008 — “Legacy of Ashes”
- When will global oil production peak? Ask the CIA!, 1 May 2008
- Something every American should read, 25 May 2009 — About the CIA’s use of torture
- Another urban legend that will not die: the CIA is the world’s major drug dealer, 11 July 2009