THE BLOG
03/17/2016 08:28 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2017

The CIA as a Public Relations Phenomenon

Say what you will about the spooky Central Intelligence Agency (and God help us, the list of accusations is as long as your arm), but the crime that should make the CIA the most stunningly laughable agency in administrative history is "impersonating an ultra-competent governmental body."

In truth, the CIA owes its vaunted reputation to one source: Hollywood's movie studios. The way the movies portray America's clandestine services goes so far beyond mere "exaggeration" or embellishment, it verges on outright hero worship, stubbornly confusing James Woolsey with James Bond. Alas, if our intel-gathering networks were a fraction as accomplished as Hollywood portrays them to be, we wouldn't have been mired in Vietnam or Iraq.

Just consider the record. This "ultra-competent" spy organization embarrassed itself by not seeing the imminent dissolution of the USSR until a week or two before it happened--basically about the same time that foreign correspondents working for various media outlets found out about it. In other words, the end of the decades-long Cold War was as much of a shock to the CIA as it was to the rest of us.

Or consider the Iranian Revolution that occurred during the Carter administration. Not to overstate it, but it has to be said that the CIA never saw this one coming. Had the CIA been able to assess the volatility of the situation--had their trusted intelligence sources been worth the money we taxpayers were paying them--those Iranian "students" wouldn't have overrun the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and those embassy employees wouldn't have been held hostage for 444 days.

Or take Cuba, the little island in the Caribbean that became the bane of our existence for half a century. In his history of the CIA ("Legacy of Ashes") Tim Weiner notes that even though placing spies within Fidel Castro's inner circle was one of the Agency's critical "priorities" going all the way back to the Kennedy administration, they failed utterly in the attempt.

Not only were they unable to install a singly spy in the Cuban government, but over the span of roughly 22 years, every CIA operative sent to Cuba became a double-agent. As mind-blowing as that seems, according to Weiner, it's an absolute fact. Every spy we sent to Cuba to spy on Castro was turned into a "Fidelista" to spy on us. Not exactly James Bondian in its implications, no?

To those who think we're being too tough on the CIA, and argue that international spy-craft is way more difficult and demanding than we make it out to be, let us consider a case a bit closer to home. In fact, let us consider an episode that occurred not only on U.S. soil, but one that occurred right inside the CIA's own shop.

Of course, we're speaking of the infamous Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who was found to be selling secrets to the Soviet Union. What made this debacle so outrageous was the Agency's unbelievable incompetence in "breaking" the case. Indeed, if Hollywood were to produce a film tracing Ames's traitorous career, it would be too preposterous to be believed.

To make a long story short, Ames had dropped so many obvious clues, a blind could have seen them. Although his civil service salary was $60,000 a year, he was able to purchase a $500,000 home, a $50,000 Jaguar, a closet filled with custom-tailored clothing, and a credit card whose monthly fee was greater than his monthly salary.

Ames was also an alcoholic, a man who reportedly would be drunk at his desk before noon. In other words, not what one in the clandestine service would consider a "tough nut to crack." But it took the CIA forever to figure out that this guy was selling secrets to the Soviets. This 31-year counterintelligence officer was finally arrested, in 1994, after a decade of selling top secrets.

So the next time Hollywood makes a movie that depicts CIA operatives as these wildly shrewd and heroic intelligence officers, instead of classifying the genre as "espionage," they should label it as "science fiction." Truth in advertising, so to speak.