The CIA's Family Jewels

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET

The CIA is hotter than ever. Yesterday, the agency released "the Family Jewels" -- a 700-page secret file made in 1973 that chronicles domestic spying programs, foreign assassination plots, and other dirty activities. No matter that the jewels are old and well known; they were investigated exhaustively by the Senate's Church Committee back in the 1970s. It is the salacious details we crave. And there are plenty: a document about disguises and aliases, a request by Watergate henchman E. Howard Hunt for an accomplished lockpicker, and reports about how the CIA tried to digitally enhance images of TV appearance by Washington Post reporter Jack Anderson so that agency officials could see the serial numbers on his documents and track down his sources.

But what's missing from Jewelamania is something far more important: understanding how intelligence agencies actually work. Thirty-four years after the Family Jewels were locked away, and nearly six years after the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, misperceptions about U.S. intelligence agencies abound. Most Americans have no idea that the CIA is just one of 16 federal agencies that collect and analyze intelligence. Just who controls this sprawling apparatus? No one. The CIA director has never had much power, and the new Director of National Intelligence, a position created in 2004, may have even less. Follow the money: for decades, 80 percent of the intelligence budget has been controlled by the Secretary of Defense and most intelligence agencies are still housed in the Pentagon. Ever wonder why the Pentagon keeps trashing intelligence reform proposals?

Many Americans fear that the National Security Agency is watching their every move with space-age gizmos and Big Brother accuracy. Meanwhile, real National Security Agency officials are worried that electricity shortages could soon crash their entire computer system. Spooks packing lethal weapons do work at CIA headquarters, but they are far outnumbered by egghead analysts wielding nothing but their Ph.D.'s.

Why are we so misinformed? Two reasons: Hollywood and the Ivory Tower.

Intelligence is hot, and it is everywhere -- bestselling novels, hit television shows like Alias and 24, and movies (Bourne, Clancy, and the mother of all spy franchises, James Bond). In this world, agencies are cool, powerful, and successful. James Bond always gets his man, Jack Ryan kills terrorists from the comfort of his northern Virginia cubicle, and Jack Bauer manages to save the United States from Armageddon just before the end of each television season. As former CIA senior official Mark M. Lowenthal once joked, "Alias is hardly a realistic portrayal of what we do. For one thing, none of us are that good-looking, at least consistently, and none of our cases are ever solved in 42 minutes." In Hollywood, intelligence agencies are omnipotent. Here on earth, they are often incompetent.

The other culprit is less obvious: Universities are neglecting the study of intelligence. In 2006, only 4 of the top 25 universities rated by U.S. News & World Report offered undergraduate courses on intelligence agencies or issues. Undergraduates at America's elite universities had greater opportunities to learn about the rock band U2 than the spy plane by the same name; more of the top 25 offered courses on the history of rock and roll.

Scholarly inattention is even more glaring in academic publishing. Between 2001 and 2006, the three most highly regarded academic journals in political science published a total of 750 articles. Only one discussed intelligence. At precisely the time that intelligence issues have dominated headlines and policymaker attention, the nation's best political scientists have been researching everything else.

This is no accident. For career academics, the benefits of studying intelligence are low: abstract theory, not relevance to the real world, is what makes careers. Degrees are awarded, grants are secured, tenure is achieved, and reputations are made by contributing to raging theoretical debates in cloistered fields, not addressing practical matters of broad public concern. In most top research universities, "policy" is a four-letter word.

In addition, data is the lifeblood of academic research, and it is in very short supply. U.S. intelligence agencies have their problems, but they are world class when it comes to separating themselves from the outside world. At the CIA, the total number of employees is classified, and no online directory exists for officials without undercover responsibilities. Even the agency's public affairs director, Mark Mansfield, has no direct contact information posted online.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any person to request the release of classified documents, and by law federal agencies must respond to all requests within 30 business days. In reality, however, the process is time-consuming, cumbersome, and riddled with uncertainty. The request to declassify the family jewels languished for 15 years. It had lots of company. A 2003 audit by the National Security Archives found that the 10 longest Freedom of Information Act requests had been pending at the CIA for more than 14 years. The FBI's 10 oldest were between three and 16 years old. If the Family Jewels are any guide, still-secret 9/11 materials may see the light of day sometime around 2041.

The gap between fact and fiction matters. So long as the public believes that intelligence agencies are too powerful and should be restrained, and policymakers believe that they are too weak and must be strengthened, meaningful intelligence reform will be impossible. A well informed public is the first and most important step toward preventing abuses and protecting security.

Salacious details are riveting. But don't let the glitter of all those family jewels blind you.

Amy B. Zegart is Associate Professor of Public Policy at UCLA and the author of Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11, which will be published in August.