12/29/2014 12:31 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

How Good Is the CIA?


The unstated question that runs through the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture is: How good is the CIA at doing intelligence work? This formulation consolidates two questions: How good is it at operations? How good is it at analysis? There has been institutional tension between the agencies' two wings since the earliest days when Truman's conception of a centralized intelligence gathering and assessing body was challenged by the incorporation of the OSS veterans who were gung-ho about defeating the Commies through undercover black deeds. The operative people have always dominated being more glamorous and better at self promotion -- especially to Congress and the White House. The WOT consolidated and expanded their position. They are the people who run the drone programs around the world; they lead an array of private armies in Afghanistan; they devise cloak-and-dagger schemes of all sorts. By contrast, the CIA's corps of able analysts has been depleted and marginalized over the past 30 years since Director Bill Casey and his Deputy Robert Gates began to purge the Agency of the professionals whose independence stood in the way of the campaign to harness the IC to the Reagan administration's hardline Cold War strategy.

What does the record tell us? There are several revealing flashpoints that shed some light. The CIA in 2001 allowed General Musharraf to fly out of Afghanistan hundreds of Taliban (and perhaps a few al-Qaeda) under the guise of evacuating ISI agents. It was the CIA that unleashed the berserk Raymond Davis on the streets of Lahore where he gunned down two ISI agents -- thereby provoking a major crisis between Washington and the Pakistani Army. The agency failed to forewarn American officials about participating in series of meetings with supposed Taliban whose top level leader turned out to be a grocer from Quetta. This is the outfit that dispatched 22 agents to Milan where they spent a week at a 5-star hotel readying themselves to nab an wholly innocuous Imam who was dispatched to Jordan for torture. For this caper, the Italian courts convicted the crack CIA operatives in absentia -ensuring that they won't be tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain anytime soon. Then there was the novice CIA operative collared by the Russians in Moscow with a false beard and an old Moscow street map. The CIA, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, bought the tall-tales of "curveball" the crackpot Iraqi agitator who sold them a pack of lies about Saddam's weapons stockpiles. In a similar vein, they bought into the huckster who persuaded the CIA chiefs that he could read cryptic al-Qaeda communications hidden in Al Jazeera headlines. The CIA's wackiest scheme was the surreptitious transfer to Iran of detailed designs for a nuclear warhead that contained engineering flaws. The idea was to set any Iranian program down a false path. The Agency, though, misjudged how easy it would be for the Iranian personnel to detect the flaw; moreover, they may well have learned from the accurate features of the design.

These errors of commission pale next to the errors of omission. The CIA has failed to provide timely, accurate and significant intelligence on just about every political development of consequence in the world.

They missed the Egyptian coup led by General al-Sisi. They missed Putin's move into Crimea and the entire pattern of the Russian reaction to our adventure in regime change in Kiev. They missed Nouri al-Maliki's adamant refusal to sign the Status Of Forces of Agreement that would have kept a residual American force in the country. They missed the fact that the notorious chemical attack in Syria last August nearly brought us to war was in fact a rebel false flag operation. They missed nearly everything about the internal dynamics of post-9/11 Afghanistan that ensured the failure of our grandiose nation-building project while exaggerating the Taliban threat in the early years (generating actions that led to its actual resurrection). Finally, they made a hash of the hunt for Osama bin-Laden. For eight years, they had no track of him whatsoever -- despite the enormous financial and technical resources we had at our disposal. The Agency overlooked or misinterpreted bits of intelligence that did come their way. Once tipped off (probably by the Pakistanis, perhaps by OBL's own people) that he might be in that house in Abbottabad, it took seven months of observation to determine some al-Qaeda leader was in it. On the eve of the attack, they still didn't know for sure. We imagined a large force of fanatical guards even though the modest house and grounds (under satellite and ground surveillance) had no physical space for one; thus, we organized a massive assault team to storm a building occupied by two males with two AK-47s. Hardly a brilliant performance. In the CIA-White House fantasy world, the raid was played up as a combination of the D-day landings and the storming of Constantinople by the Turks. In truth, the CIA's greatest successes are ones of public relations -- its real forte.

What of the Islamic State or ISIL? This complicated and yet to be understood story is a twin failure of intelligence and policy-making. Much remains murky. Here is what we know.

  • Overall, the Intelligence Community (IC) was slow on the uptake. Fragments of information were registered early on but the picture did not crystallize. Late in 2013, Washington officials were still citing al-Nusra as the main radical, al-Qaeda connected threat. Even IS' seizure of Falluja and parts of Ramadi in December-January were undervalued -- as late as January Barack Obama was disparaging IS as a sort of al-Qaeda "junior varsity."(New Yorker , January 27, 2014)

  • The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was out in front in projecting the military capabilities of IS, including their threat to Mosul.

  • The DIA did have a few human intelligence sources within the Iraqi Army who correctly appraised its hollowness and corruption. It is not clear what prominence was given this assessment or how it figured in the Obama administration's estimation of the dangers represented by ISIL.

  • The NSA provided little if any useful surveillance data regarding the IS leadership or its associated groups. Question: Was this due the unsuitability of the Agency's ultra-sophisticated technology to the ISIL target and/or because they were preoccupied elsewhere?

  • The State Department's Intelligence bureau (INR) used these fragments of Intelligence information and drew from open sources to draw a picture of the movement and its capabilities*

  • They were largely ignored by the National Security Advisor Susan Rice and her staff. The entire National Security advisory apparatus is widely viewed within the administration as erratic, highly personalized and dysfunctional. Under the irascible Rice and her principal deputy Ben Rhodes, the outsized NSC staff of 400 is better suited to games of palace intrigue and to obstruction than it is to serving the needs of a president who is himself diffident and unfocused.

  • Obama had made a clear decision in late 2011 that the United States would not intervene in Syria -- in support of the Syrian National Council/Army or any other way. ISIL's rise discomforted the White House by raising the specter of a major terrorist threat to the U.S. and endangering the Baghdad regime in Iraq. His instinct was to evade the issue by downplaying IS' disruptive potential. The effect on the IC was to weaken the IC's concentrated focus on ISIL in Syria. At this point, it is understood throughout the administration that presidential concern is on Iraq. The current ploy of training a "moderate" Syrian opposition is just a smokescreen that is not taken seriously. Syria, in effect, is written off as a place where no outcome favorable to the United States is possible. By default, Washington is subscribing to the Israeli position of viewing a prolonged stalemate as tolerable, perhaps desirable, since it entails two hostile forces killing each other. Isn't there a logical disconnect between the ardent pursuit of ISIL in Iraq and laissez-faire approach to ISIL in Syria? Of course. But as the United States chases its tail around the entire Middle East, logic is just another casualty of substituting fractured impulse for strategy.

  • The CIA consistently played the "heavy" in trying to dominate all inter-agency committees, reviews, etc -- more interested in bureaucratic control than getting the best possible product to senior policy-makers. One of their ploys is to denigrate anything that does not come directly from one of their sources

  • At no time, did the CIA Director's office produce a clear, crisp paper that laid out he full dimensions of the mounting ISIL threat, its implications and assessing rigorously possible courses of action. Admittedly, the White House never expressed any keen interest in the growing ISIL phenomenon. Quite the contrary. All Syrian developments were low priority since Obama had concluded early on that there was little the United States could do and sought to avoid undercutting his "war terminator" legacy theme. A more independent and professional Intelligence agency would have proceeded anyway to conduct rigorous assessment and call the president's attention to developments of consequence. Brennan, though, and his predecessors were ultra sensitive to the White House moods. Brennan was the president's personal counter-terrorism chief for four years. He knew what Obama wanted and gave it to him. The dangers of politicizing Intelligence are personified by the Obama-Brennan relationship. The Director's statutory responsibility is to provide the Chief Executive with detached, unbiased analysis -- not to join in devising public relations tactics to "spin" the story of the week.


The political class has rallied in defense of the CIA, implicitly 'torture" and certainly the "war on terror." Some actively, some passively. It is a bipartisan defense mechanism at work -- just as the WOT has been bipartisan since Day One. Only two Senators have expressed genuine outrage -- John McCain and outgoing Colorado Senator Mark Udall. The rest of Congress either has extended nominal support for the Senate Intelligence Committee publication of the report (Democrats), kept a discrete silence or vociferously attacked it on every conceivable grounds (nearly all Republicans). Hillary, at the first sound of the cat's paw, scurried down her bolt hole where she has been nibbling a selection of gourmet cheeses while Bill works the poll numbers. Once the coast is clear, she will reemerge to resume the politics of platitude. Andrew Cuomo did make headlines the very day after the Feinstein presentation by boldly declaring that New York State would insist that all health insurance policies sold in the state cover sex changes -- without a lifetime quota. After all, "reversal" is the born-again conservative Cuomo's middle name. Others like Chris Christie and Jeb Bush similarly observed the rule of omerta. In a healthy polity, any presidential aspirant who did not speak out firmly and clearly on such a matter of national interest would de facto disqualify him(her)self from serious consideration. Not in today's America.

As for the security specialists and the commentariat in general, they have been unnaturally mute. Usually ready to proclaim and to pontificate at the slightest ripple of events in far-off Afghanistan or Yemen, they suddenly are tongue-tied.

For the MSM, the torture story was a 48-hour wonder. Both the visual and print media found it politically expedient to provide maximum exposure to arch defenders of the CIA like Dick Cheney, Michael Hayden, John Yoo and Director John Brennan himself. The NYT managed to feature Cheney and Brennan in side-by-side front page lead stories. No other torture related content appeared in the paper last Monday. True, the editorial board issued a strong editorial in the wake of the Report's issuance that condemned torture and called for President Obama to reconsider his 2009 decision to draw a view over every ugly aspect of the WOT. The paper's editors had six years to print that editorial before it became expedient to do so in full knowledge that the proposed action never would be taken. This is what is known in the trade as the "Thanksgiving Legacy." When many years from now some precocious grandchild at the family Thanksgiving dinner asks the patriarch: "What did you do while our leaders were shaming our country?" -- grandpa rises from his chair, finds his tablet, and shows her the editorial/article that proves what a conscientious editor and citizen he had been.

It is hard to imagine what might stir America's political class, especially the elite members of it, out of their timid escapism. Here is an actual story that beats any Hollywood or TV script hands down. The country's top spy agency breaks the law at White House command in a fit of post-9/11 rage by engaging in systematic torture -- of innocents and suspects alike. They lie about it for years; destroy evidence; concoct false narratives about what vital national ends were served by it. The current Director organizes a break-in of the Senate Committee computers -- the committee that has Constitutional duty to monitor and supervise the CIA's activities. The president aids and abets the break-in. He uses all the powers of his office in a failed attempt to prevent publication of the Senate Report. He lauds publicly those who have committed these crimes and designates the Director to be the official presidential spokesman to address the country in justifying what was done. The Director declares that we may have to torture again. Yet, for the MSM, for the politicos, for the commentariat, it's just another day at the office.

The American people are living in the grip of a psychosis. We have become divorced from reality, and thereby divorced from our better selves, consumed by an extreme and irrational fear rooted in the trauma of 9/11. It has been stoked by our leaders who themselves share in it.

So, in short, nothing will change. A lawless, incompetent CIA will continue to act with impunity to the detriment of the nation's security and foreign interests. John Brennan -- inveterate liar, bungler and fantasist -- will remain secure at the helm with the full backing of his co-conspirator in the Oval Office. No modifications of law or organization or accountability will be introduced. As at the NSA, "normalcy" will be restored. Praise the Lord and pass the appropriations.