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Rewiring the CIA for A Post-Cold-War World

Taking stock of the nation’s intelligence

Robert Gates, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, Senator, Bob Dole, David BorenRobert Gates, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, Senator, Bob Dole, David Boren

Robert Gates, the nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, center, is introduced by former Senators Bob Dole, left, and David Boren in Washington, DC on December 5th, 2006.

Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty

THE COUNTRY’S CRYSTAL BALL IS cracked. Confounded by the cease-fire in the cold war, the Central Intelligence Agency and the empire of American espionage are in a state of confusion.

Though America’s secret intelligence machinery consumes $30 billion a year —– more than Washington spends on education or the environment —– it works about as well as one of those old pocket calculators from the Seventies, the kind that cost $400 and could barely do long division. Despite its billion-dollar satellites, supercomputers and high-tech eavesdropping gear, the agencies can’t understand what’s going on in the world or anticipate a crisis – the heart and soul of intelligence work.

“We don’t know where the next problems are,” says retired admiral Bobby Ray Inman, a very smart former spook who ran the National Security Agency –— America’s largest intelligence service —– and served as the No. 2 man at the CIA. Half the time, says Inman, American intelligence can’t report deeper facts than newspapers or television. When CNN beats the CIA, something’s wrong.

President Bush loves secret intelligence like a kid loves Nintendo. That’s partly why he eased out the old director of Central Intelligence, William Webster, last month. Bush, who once had the job himself, has said nothing publicly about the drift and ferment at the puzzle palace. But he spoke volumes by choosing a man in his own image to replace Webster: his deputy national-security adviser, a bright-eyed forty-seven-year-old intelligence apparatchik named Robert Gates.

This is Gates’s second grab at the ring. He was the CIA’s second in command in 1987 when President Reagan named him to run the agency after the Iran-contra fiasco. But Gates was forced to withdraw when the Senate Intelligence Committee stiff-armed him for failing to sound the alarm that Reagan’s national-security soldiers were out of control.

Now the committee –— which has been trying to oversee the CIA for fifteen years– — has concerns other than what Gates did or didn’t do while his colleagues were off selling missiles to Iranians and sneaking profits to the contras. The senators now realize that the covert circuitry connecting the CIA, the Pentagon, the White House and Congress has gone haywire. In March they began holding a year’s worth of closed-door hearings on reorganizing American intelligence.

The issues this time aren’t murder and immorality, as in the Seventies. It’s not a question of “unleashing” the nation’s secret agents, as in the Eighties. The great debate today is efficiency —– how to tame a beast grown too huge and clumsy to grapple with the crushingly complicated questions of the Nineties.

I DO NOT BELIEVE IN A BIG AGENCY,” ALLEN DULLES, who would later serve as director of Central Intelligence (DCI), told Congress before it created the agency. “If this thing gets to be a great big octopus, it will not function well.” Dulles was almost right: American intelligence has become a ten-ton squid, blowing black ink to obscure the fact that it’s tripping over its own tentacles.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is hearing a series of horror stories: tales of how the nation’s intelligence agencies, robbed of the Soviet enemy and without a clear focus on the future, have become a chaotic rabble over the past few years. “There’s a great big ship out there, and there’s nobody at the helm,” says a committee staffer and CIA veteran. “The intelligence community is virtually rudderless,” says Senator Arlen Specter, a longtime committee member.

William Webster admitted as much a few days before he resigned. Talking with a visiting academic in his office, Webster said that during his four-year tenure he had found it impossible to get a grip on the intelligence apparatus. It was a sad confession from a man who had been appointed to impose control after the go-go years of William Casey.

It’s not all Webster’s fault that he failed. The DCI is supposed to run the country’s twelve different intelligence agencies, but he’s not given any real power over spending. That’s a problem. Military intelligence, fed by huge secret budgets, now dwarfs the CIA. The Pentagon commands nearly nine times more covert cash, jobs and technology than the CIA. About $25 billion goes to the Pentagon’s spies in the National Security Agency (NSA), which taps the world’s telecommunications with banks of antennas bigger than the Superdome; the National Reconnaissance Office, the air-force spy-satellite network so secret it doesn’t exist; and the Defense Intelligence Agency, along with its military-service branches.

The three-star generals who spend that money aren’t in the habit of saluting the civilians at the CIA. So all sorts of little intelligence empires proliferate within the Pentagon. Marching to their own orders, the three-stars duplicate and triplicate everything every other intelligence agency does, wasting untold billions. They “literally believe it doesn’t make any sense to take orders” from the director of Central Intelligence, says retired air-force general Daniel Graham, a CIA veteran and former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

As a result, the relationship between the CIA and the Pentagon has degenerated into “internecine warfare,” says Senate Intelligence Committee chairman David Boren. A cease-fire “would require a kind of cooperation … for which there’s absolutely no precedent,” says retired army general William Odom, who ran the NSA from 1983 to 1987.

One consequence of this chaos is that tens of billions of dollars spent on extraordinarily sophisticated machines produce an unceasing torrent of raw data that no one ever reads. Eighty percent of the NSA’s take –— about $8 billion worth of information a year –— gathers dust on computer tapes no one has time to run. The ability of our spy technology to gather intelligence far outstrips the capacity of humans to analyze it intelligently. Its like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose.

As the old cold-war machinery cranks on —– more than half the intelligence budget still goes to counter the Soviet threat –— the spy machines create billions of bits of data a day, information pours from foreign radio broadcasts and newspapers and obscure government periodicals, tens of thousands of dissidents and refugees try to tell their stories, and the analysts try to figure out what it all means. Too often, they can’t tell. CIA papers tend to turn to mush, with a dozen weasel words per page, “a diffusion of answers which answer nothing,” in the words of Senator Warren Rudman, an Intelligence Committee member.

For $30 billion a year, congressional critics grumble, we should have answers. We should have known that the Soviet Union was falling apart, yet the speed and depth of its disintegration shocked the CIA to its roots. We should have known that Saddam Hussein was having delusions of grandeur, yet when he massed his troops at Kuwait’s border last summer, the CIA didn’t predict he’d try to conquer the emirate until a few hours before the invasion. Then the U.S. intelligence machine panicked, forecasting a sudden invasion of Saudi Arabia by hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops brandishing chemical weapons. Senate intelligence chairman Boren says our “strategic intelligence —– that is, long-term political and military intelligence regarding Iraqi intentions and plans –— was inadequate.” Tactical intelligence during the war was lousy too, gripes committee member John Glenn, saying pilots got better battlefield data from their own eyeballs than from the array of spy satellites over Iraq.

Questions from Congress are cascading into the CIA’s in box: What weapons should we choose for the twenty-first century? Who’ll succeed Gorbachev? How much heroin are the Afghan guerrillas we’re arming shipping stateside? What’s up inside the Chinese army? Why is Panama sleazier today than before we grabbed Noriega? And when will we free the surviving American hostages in Lebanon? The answers aren’t forthcoming.

THE TRUE THREAT FOR BOB GATES, IF HE IS CONFIRMED as DCI, is clear: Either he sorts out the tangled wires and debugs the intelligence software, makes the three-star generals salute and stops the fantastic waste of money and resources – or Congress will try to do it for him.

The debate on reforming the intelligence agencies is “fifteen years overdue,” says General Odom, the former NSA chief. But the last real attempt to reform them, fifteen years ago, nearly killed them. Back in 1976 a long parade of skeletons tumbled from the closet: mad plots to murder foreign leaders, mind-control experiments on unwitting human guinea pigs, miles of CIA files kept on Americans in violation of the agency’s charter. The NSA had monitored every cable going in and out of the country for twenty-eight years. The CIA had manipulated elections in democratic countries. It had infiltrated American religious groups, college campuses and news agencies. And it had opened so much first-class mail that it had 1.5 million Americans’ names in its computers.

Ever since, Congress has been trying to control the CIA and its sister agencies. By 1980 the CIA agreed that the newly created Senate and House Intelligence Committees would receive secret testimony about covert operations abroad. They would have an overview of the multi-billion-dollar intelligence budgets. They would receive the CIA’s flight plans, not just clippings about the crashes. They would have a say in the nation’s secret agenda.

It took less than five years for the Reagan administration to break all those rules. William Casey, Reagan’s devious DCI, took the CIA outside the law. To avoid congressional oversight —– and to keep their insane scams from coming to light –— Casey and his crew of covert White House operators created a CIA outside the CIA. They ran off-the-books operations with millions extracted from kings, dictators and arms dealers, then lied about it all when cornered. So much for unleashing the CIA.

The time for reform was ripe in the summer of 1987, when Casey’s capers were laid bare. The lessons were plain: Control covert action, keep the White House and the CIA from conducting renegade foreign policies, stop the spread of secrecy. But Congress blew it. Not a single reform of substance came from Iran-contra.

Forty-two years after accepting the need for a clandestine service, Congress still can’t resolve the paradox of running secret agencies in a democracy. Maybe it can’t be solved. Maybe the CIA corrodes democracy and should be thrown on the scrapheap of history. The CIA is “the quintessential product of the cold war,” and now that the war is over, the agency belongs to the past, says Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a conservative New York Democrat and former Intelligence Committee vice-chairman. He has introduced legislation that would all but abolish the CIA, giving many of its responsibilities to the State Department, but that’s not going to happen. Remember Pearl Harbor, his colleagues say. America, for better or for worse, has to have a good intelligence service. The trouble is, the CIA isn’t it.

So now begins the third cycle of rot and renewal at the CIA. The Intelligence Committees won’t junk the intelligence machine, but Gates better convince them he’s a good mechanic. Somebody –— and if not the new DCI, then, as Arlen Specter has suggested, perhaps a congressionally created “intelligence czar” –— has to make the agencies stop doing everything in triplicate. If they don’t, the congressional overseers have threatened to whack about $1.5 billion out of the agencies’ budgets this year – and every year until 1997. This has gotten the collective attention of the clandestine bureaucracy.

So has a campaign by Senator Howard Metzenbaum to unveil the intelligence budget. The covert cache has been hidden under phony accounts in the Pentagon’s budget since the cold war began. Metzenbaum says this violates the Constitution’s call for a full account of government spending and argues that “in a democratic society, it’s totally inappropriate to classify what’s being spent.” Inman agrees that there’s no good reason for keeping intelligence spending secret. He says disclosing the cost would do no damage to national security and might increase public trust.

If this happens —– and the odds are long but improving —– we might be able, for the first time, to have an informed and open debate on our intelligence spending, now approaching $100 million a day. But Bush helped stall a drive to publish the intelligence budget back when he was director of Central Intelligence in 1976 and 1977. He’s not likely to change his mind now.

Congress is also weighing a modest proposal to make it illegal for the president and his secret agents to solicit funds or cut deals to carry out criminal schemes abroad. Moynihan says this would “reassert a most important principle which was lost in the fog of the cold war”: that presidents may not break the law in the name of national security. If such a bill emerges, Bush will veto it. Like all commanders in chief, he wants absolute authority to order the CIA to do things abroad that would look terrible in an American courtroom.

Finally, and most importantly, we can’t keep spending billions chasing shadows in a cave. The committees are demanding honesty, accountability and accuracy in intelligence assessments of coming threats. The CIA and the Pentagon have a long history of creating fearsome foreign bogymen. In the Fifties and Sixties, they drove the nation’s nuclear arsenal to absurd levels by inventing a Soviet threat far more powerful than really existed. “Our guesses were way off,” President Lyndon Johnson later said. “We were doing things we didn’t need to do. We were building things we didn’t need to build. We were harboring fears we didn’t need to harbor.”

It happened again in the Eighties: The spooks looked in their shaving mirrors and saw a surging Soviet military and economic juggernaut. The United States reacted with a trillion-dollar orgy of military spending – while the Soviets collapsed, to the CIA’s surprise. The spree is over now. We need to take care that our own military spending doesn’t plunge us into an economic abyss like the one that swallowed the Soviets.

“We’ve got to get the potential threats right,” Inman says. The CIA has to “keep the Pentagon honest” when it comes to choosing weapons and spending fortunes. But can Congress keep the CIA honest?

It can if it demands a greater deal of glasnost from the secret agencies, if it can convince the CIA to demystify its work, declassify its best and most important intelligence analyses, present them in the court of public opinion, subject them to the give-and-take of public debate.

The cold war created an intelligence empire that too often resembled its Soviet archenemy: a closed society, resistant to reform. If Congress really wants to reshape American intelligence, it will have to open up the system of secret agencies funded by secret budgets producing secret documents fueling secret decisions. Bush, Gates and the three-star generals covet covertness. They want to work in the dark. But the darkness is isolating the intelligence agencies from one another and contributing to their confusion. Liberated from the grinding tensions and secrecy strictures of the cold war, our intelligence service could be less fearful of explaining itself to the people it serves. It could free itself to publish its thoughts and discuss its ideas openly. It could come in from the cold.

In This Article: Coverwall

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