Foreign Policy

CIAwful: On the Lack of Intelligence in Central Intelligence


Philip Giraldi, the American Conservative's man from the CIA, is excited about Leon Panetta for chief of the beleagued intelligence agency, but thinks it's got some deep down problems that even a skilled Clinton fixer isn't going to be able to keep under cover.

Some colorful analysis of how our would-be American James Bonds are really more Maxwell Smarts:

The Agency has undeniably had successes, but weighed against the cost and measured against the national interest they have been few and far between….. It failed to realize that even its supposed victories would bear bitter fruit—Afghanistan is a case in point. And the Agency's ability to predict and counter threats against the United States, the purpose for which it was created by the National Security Act of 1947, has been almost nonexistent. Double agents from Russia, Cuba, China, and MI-6 all penetrated the Agency, and its old-boy culture led to the failure to identify Aldrich Ames, a traitor within its own ranks who betrayed our few agents in Moscow. Despite years of effort and billions of dollars, the CIA has never obtained policy-level information on key international adversaries. The development of nuclear weapons by the USSR and China, the Korean War, and India's test of an atomic bomb all took the Agency by surprise. From 1969 onward, it bowed to political pressure to overestimate the size of the Russian economy.

More recently, the Agency failed to predict and stop the 9/11 attacks, and its preparation of the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002 was wrong in every particular, leading to the disastrous war with Iraq. Currently, the Agency is unable to penetrate terrorist groups. Nearly every top-level agent employed over the course of 60 years has been a volunteer, a "walk-in," not the product of intensive efforts to find and recruit spies. 

Among the other specific problems Giraldi fingers for the CIA are a consistent rising to the level of their incompetence of agency lifers; a continued absurd lack of emphasis on actually being able to read or speak the languages of the nation's we are trying to infiltrate and understand; and the expensive and morale-sapping hiring of superannuated old officers as highly paid contractors (better paid than actual employees) after leaving the agency. Overall, Giraldi paints a picture of the sort of useless bureaucracy that a real savvy budget-cutter might think about eliminating entirely.

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  1. And let’s not forget that whole Berlin Wall thing. I know it was only a footnote in history, but still…

  2. Double agents from Russia, Cuba, China, and MI-6 all penetrated the Agency,

    Doesn’t Israel belong in that not-so-exclusive group?

  3. But to be fair, all of those assassination attempts on Castro appear to be finally bearing fruit.

  4. The CIA is great when it comes to covering up their own failures while convincing politicians for the need of non-existant public scrutiny. I think that counts as counter-intelligence.

  5. They’re good at money-laundering, too.

  6. Not to mention the psychedelic research!

  7. My father was a Foreign Service officer, and I wondered for several years whether he was CIA or not. A couple years after he retired, he filled me in on what he thought of the CIA.

    Seems that there are very good reasons why the Department of State is hostile to the spooks.


  8. Hey, who said you had to be good at what you do…thats why you work for the Feds, put your feet up and wait until retirement!

  9. I think that Iran in 1979 was one of the CIA’s more sparkling failures. The American Embassy was staffed with operators who did not speak Farsi while Langley did not see the overthrow of the Shah coming until after he had died. One of the hostages sent a letter home to his wife with a coded message using the first letter of each each word in a sentence to spell out a message. His wife knew to look for something but could not figure out what and so she forwarded it to the CIA. They could not figure it out either.

  10. Robert Bork is truly the conservative answer to Theodor Adorno.

  11. jcr,

    Damn you! Give some details!

  12. no shit JCR, give some details!

  13. Sure, Obama can shatter the Co. into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds, just like that Kennedy chap wanted. Good luck.

  14. Kennedy had good reason, but he also gave some orders that helped ensure the Bay of Pigs would be a complete clusterfuck.

  15. Don’t forget, they bought down the World Trade Centerwith controlled explosives while simultameously flying two jumbo jets into them fort a cover up, flew a missile into the Pentagon, faked a plane crash in Pennsylvania and disapperared all the alleged passengers, all on the same day.

    Those guys are good.

  16. Perhaps it would be best to just fire the entire CIA and start over again, this time focusing on actually gathering intelligence?

  17. J sub D

    Hey, you forget. They “pulled” WTC7 too.

    Damn, they are good.

  18. And they haven’t even bothered to investigate these strange “Find your Russian beauty” ads that keep coming up on H&R.

  19. Old Bull, I suspect there are plenty of CIA folks “investigating” those ads.

  20. One of the CIA’s few real successes was covering up the general attractiveness of Eastern European women.

  21. I think the bureaucracy has led to an inability of the CIA to actually hire any real spies. I don’t know how they expect people that have led completely clean lives, including never smoking pot more than 6 times or whatever, to be the same type of individual prepared to develop assets and break the law in other countries.

    Analysts they might have; humanint, I’m not so sure anymore.

  22. Ok, you want details, I’ll give you a few.

    My dad was an intelligence analyst at State, working on the China desk during the Cultural Revolution. He was one of a group that wrote up a daily intel assessment on China for the white house, that consisted of himself, his CIA counterpart, and representatives from the various defense agencies.

    If he disagreed with what CIA wanted to put in the report, he could put in a foot note, EG: “we think this“, and the footnote would say “but State thinks that“.

    Every time he did so, the CIA guy would first try the standard CIA argument: “based on what you know, your position is reasonable, but if you knew what we know, you’d agree with us, so just do like we say”. Dad would always reply “I’m cleared to know what you know, I have need to know what you know, so tell me and we’ll see if I agree.”

    They would then gang up on him on the phone, with his CIA counterpart, that guy’s boss, and their boss all threatening him with the destruction of his career. Then, they’d go over his head to the undersecretary of state for Asian affairs, who would invariably tell them “Randolph is my China expert, I don’t follow the situation closely enough to second-guess him, and State’s position is
    what he recommends.”

    From what I’ve heard from other US diplomats, CIA wasn’t very big on winning friends and influencing people in State or any other department. Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when all CIA records get published and we can find out exactly what we got for our money.


  23. One of the CIA’s few real successes was covering up the general attractiveness of Eastern European women.

    I think that was a Soviet success, not a CIA success.


  24. The 26 CIA employees who abducted radical preacher Abu Omar from a Milan street in 2003 used passports and cell phones in false names but called their families in Virginia and claimed frequent flyer miles at their hotels in their true names, enabling Italian investigators to identify nearly all of them.

    That’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard. It sounds made up.

  25. . I don’t know how they expect people that have led completely clean lives, including never smoking pot

    Actually, they don’t. When CIA does the background check, they’re not looking for boy scouts, but they want to be sure you tell them everything.


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