CIA’s culture of failure - Mir Adnan Aziz - Wednesday, March 02, 2011

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“I never would have agreed to the formulation of the Central Intelligence Agency back in ‘47,” Harry Truman said, “if I had known it would become the American Gestapo.”

In 2010, the United States spent a whopping 80.1 billion dollars on intelligence- gathering. The spoils of this war were shared by, apart from the CIA, the Defence Intelligence Agency, which serves the Pentagon, the eavesdropping entity that is the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency which runs spy satellites. Yet this costly cloak-and-dagger, bullet-and-bomb stuff has done little to serve US intelligence objectives.

In his book Legacy of Ashes, Pulitzer prize-winning author Tim Weiner chronicles the numerous bunglings of the CIA, the United States’ “premier” spy agency. The book draws on 50,000 documents from CIA archives going as far back as 1947. It also relies on more than 300 interviews with staff members, including ten former CIA directors. Weiner brands the agency a gross failure, concluding that “the most powerful nation in the history of Western civilisation has failed to create a first-rate spy service.”

Narrating recorded facts, the book shows how since its inception the CIA has relied on low-level sources and ill-trained officers. It asserts that Allen Dulles, the agency’s most celebrated leader, judged the importance of intelligence reports by their weight rather than contents.

Frank Wisner, the first CIA head of covert operations (1948-1958) was diagnosed with psychotic mania and committed to a mental hospital. In 1962, Wisner’s files were reviewed by a successor, who destroyed them as “the ramblings of a madman.” In 1965, Wisner committed suicide. His son, Frank Wisner Jr, a former State Department official, and ambassador to Egypt and India and a former Enron director, is Washington’s special representative for the present Egypt crisis.

Declassified documents prove that the CIA “knowingly gave the White House and the Pentagon inside information on the Soviet Union from foreign agents it knew, or strongly suspected, were controlled by Moscow.” These reports were given to Presidents Reagan, George H W Bush and Clinton. Aldrich Ames, CIA chief of counterintelligence for the Soviet-East Europe division, had been working since 1985 for the Soviet Union and then for Russia until he was discovered, and the convicted in 1994. In effect the whole US policy towards Russia was being shaped by the Kremlin.

Many CIA covert actions resulting in apparent short-term successes were long-term strategic blunders. The Iranian democratic government fell to CIA Operation Ajax in 1953, but the development eventually led to the revolution of 1979, and the United States came to be branded as “the Great Satan” by Iran. The CIA-backed Ba’ath Party coup in Iraq facilitated the advent of Saddam Hussein. The CIA was unable to predict the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the 1972 declarations of martial laws in the Philippines and South Korea, the 1973 Middle East war, the 1974 Cyprus crisis, and the coup in Portugal and the nuclear explosion by India the same year, and the 9/11 attacks.

The present upheavals in the Middle East are another product of CIA failures. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Robert Gates, the defence secretary in the Obama administration who then headed the CIA, was at a family picnic. Asked by a surprised friend about his presence there during the invasion, Gates responded: “What invasion?” The Tunisian and Egypt revolutions took the White House by surprise. President Obama reportedly told National Intelligence director James Clapper that he was “disappointed with the intelligence community” about its failure to predict the unrest that led to the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. This failure also dominated a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. The committee’s chairperson, Dianne Feinstein, was confounded as to how ignorant the CIA was of the uprisings. “Was someone looking at what was going on on the Internet?” she quipped.

Inscribed on the CIA headquarters’ lobby wall is the second half of a Bible verse: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The first half conveniently left out is: “If ye abide in My word, [then] are ye truly my disciples...” The truth is that the CIA has been involved in drug trafficking in Burma, Bangkok, Thailand, Venezuela, Colombia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama and Haiti. Active involvement in the drug trade was justified because they helped and financed their covert actions. It had also been actively involved in assassinations, kidnappings, renditions, torture and overthrow of governments. Even President Ford accused the CIA of involvement in assassination attempts against foreign leaders.

Over the years many congressional committees and panels have investigated a plethora of accusations against the agency. There has been the Rockefeller Commission, Church Committee and Pike Committee. Otis Pike, now a former member of the US House of Representatives, believed the CIA was an out of control “rogue elephant,” Sen Church and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr had the opinion. Angelo M Codevilla, a former senior staff member of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, commented that “the United States would have been better off not having an intelligence service at all.”

Defence analyst John Diamond encapsulates these fiascos in his book CIA and the Culture of Failure. He writes: “A steady stream of intelligence failures in the 1990s occurred in every facet of CIA activity, from intelligence collection to analysis to counterintelligence to covert action. These processes fed off and fuelled one another, leading to a fatal cycle of error, criticism, overcorrection, distraction, and politicisation.” This fatal cycle continues unabated. Unfazed by repeated intelligence failures from the Walker ring, Aldrich Ames, 9/11 to Raymond Davis, the reckless blundering continues.

Two thousand years ago, a Roman senator suggested that all slaves wear white armbands for people to better identify them. “No,” said a wiser senator, “if they see how many of them there are, they may revolt.” These white armbands are becoming evident the world over as reality sinks in. Here, too, the recent Davis episode was the trigger for years of suffered unbridled American arrogance, intrusion and highhandedness zealously facilitated by well placed assets. A handful here profess the indispensability of the White House and Langley, a multitude wants the riddance of the paid few and their paymasters.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email:

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