Dismantling CIA and starting from scratch is something I’ve half-jokingly advocated for in the past. But hey, I’m in good company — so have several Presidents of the United States.
Last week, blogwonk Matthew Yglesias said much the same, in a post entitled “Do We Need a CIA?”
The CIA, as currently constituted, has basically two responsibilities — intelligence analysis and covert operations. But analysis is already being done at the State Department, and seemingly done better, so one could simply beef up the resources involved in the State Department. The military, meanwhile, already has the capability to do some covert operations and there’s a general consensus in favor of shifting resources out of heavy weapons platforms and toward special operations. . .
. . .It’s not just that CIA personnel were involved in doing something bad, it’s that the specific institutional structure of the government really does seem to have played a role. After all, why were CIA personnel involved in this at all? Pre-Bush, the CIA didn’t have any interrogators. The FBI had interrogators, and the military had interrogators, but the CIA didn’t. But responsibility for interrogations wound up gravitating toward the CIA not because the CIA had relevant expertise but precisely because the CIA has an institutional history and track record of law-breaking and war crimes.
He neglects to mention that CIA also has an “institutional history and track record” of missing significant global developments like, I dunno, the collapse of the Soviet Union — the “enemy” they’d been studying for three decades.
That said, we need a US international intelligence collection agency, and badly. But CIA has been so terrible at doing this work that it’s easy to throw your hands up in frustration when they inevitably get caught with their hands in one or another nefarious cookie jars. In fact, you could probably plot CIA scandals to some kind of data-based graph — my non-scientific assumption is they get a Congressional bitch-slap every 15-20 years.
It’s not that clandestine or covert activity is unnecessary, it’s just the ways that CIA has historically gone about it have been wasteful at best and, at worst, destructive to our long-term security. One of CIA’s “big wins” was when they — somewhat accidentally — toppled the Shah in Iran. And look how well that turned out! Another score was their “intervention” Latin America, which led to massive human rights abuses and the pillaging of sovereign nations by foreign multinationals. (Actually, that was the point, so FTW, I guess.)
Yglesias suggests that CIA’s core functions could be absorbed by other federal agencies and the Department of Defense. Maybe. My suggestion would be to assemble a truly professional US intelligence service that wasn’t born of the gin-soaked fever dreams of borderline fanatical Commie-loathers. Of course, I’m not sure what you’d do with all the current CIA employees. I guess you’d have to keep ‘em, lest they spend their energies undermining the replacement agency. And therein lies the rub: how do you change the culture at Central Intelligence without, you know, changing the culture?
Amy Zegart at The Reality-Based Community says we shouldn’t bother trying — this is the best we’re likely to get. She offers four fairly reasonable arguments for keeping CIA, which don’t completely gloss over the agency’s shortcomings. It still doesn’t get to the nub of the issue, though, which is how to avoid the Groundhog Day-style cycle of ignominy that seems to haunt American intelligence-gathering.