“I had the gravest forebodings about this organization [the Central Intelligence Agency] and warned the President that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or how to control it.”
-Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation (1969)
The term “restructuring” has deserved, quite rightly, its place in the demonology of sackings, removals and exits that come with every consultant’s manual. When the boss of a unit or company passes the word around, be it in the boardroom or the pressroom, you know that something heavy is bound to fall. Someone, certainly, is in for a “reassignment” or redeployment, maybe even to the unemployment line.
What then, of CIA director John Brennan’s promise to “overhaul” the organisation in what is ostensibly an effort to modernise it? His address to the press was filled with management speak. “Efficiencies” had to be wrung; hindering “seams” in the organisation’s structure preventing proper assessment of threats had to be targeted and removed.
He suggests reassignments – moving CIA officers to 10 new mission centres focused on weapons proliferation, terrorism, and the Middle East, among other important areas of continuing if confusing interest. A new digital directorate is being added. “I’ve never seen a time when we have been confronted with such an array of very challenging, complex and serious threats to our national security and issues that we have to grabble with.”
Lurking behind such moves is the shadow of abolition, or least the murmur of efforts that have, historically, been made about the utility of such organisations. Is the spook industry simply a money-drainer, filled with extravagant dandies and loafing alcoholics? (The first chief, Allen Dulles, watched baseball games with an ear only half-cocked for briefings.)
John le Carré, himself a former spook which gave him some grist for his espionage mill, spoke before the Boston Bar Association in 1993 suggesting that linking espionage – the efforts of spies, more specifically – to victory in the Cold War, was specious. “Their capsuled isolation and their remote theorizing actually prevented them from seeing, as late as 1987 or 8, what anybody in the streets could have told them: It’s over. We’ve won.”
The beast known as the CIA has had something of mythological competence, a tissue of bare credibility when compared to its actual record. In one of his conversations with Chinese Prime Minister Chou Enlai in 1971, Henry Kissinger told Chou that he “vastly overestimates the competence of the CIA.” Chou suggested that “whenever something happens in the world today they are always thought of.” Kissinger’s response: “That is true, and it flatters them, but they don’t deserve it.”
The organisation has proven to be the great departmental sleepwalker in the US establishment, a club of somnambulistic dreamers with occasional rushes of blood and bloodiness. When it came to the 1979 Iranian revolution, former CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner observed that, “We were just plain asleep” (New York Times, Jul 22, 2007).
Barely competent operatives were present at the revival of Shia fundamentalism, a point that insulted the fervent Iranian Revolutionaries who felt that historical justice demanded a competent enemy to be present. Ditto that same drowsiness before such historical events as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the winding back of the Iron Curtain.
Spectacular failures dot the CIA resume. The 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster looms as one of the greatest low points. Its role in ensconcing the Shah in Iran, and backing various authoritarian regimes in South America is amply documented. All of these demonstrated the sheer fallibility of judgment while creating historical whirlwinds.
Many of these points deserve reiteration given that the very creation of the CIA was premised on establishing a supreme body which might not merely change, but predict history. The Pearl Harbour attacks by Imperial Japan caught the US security establishment not merely with their pants down, but with no pants at all. Instead, the creation of the intelligence service suggested meddlesome operatives frustrating people’s movements in the Third World while acting as a corrupt bank – huge amounts were forked out to groups globally who were supposedly supping from the cup of US freedom, be they the Christian Democrats in Italy, or the conservative Quadrant magazine in Australia.
It would be remiss to say that all in the CIA was rotten, incompetent and folly-driven. It was, as it remains, under executive direction, the executioner following the command of the White House. And there were moments when that not so wise executive decided to look the other way in the face of pertinent advice. CIA director John McCone did explain to Defence Secretary Robert McNamara in 1965 how the Vietnam operation might pan out. “We will find ourselves mired down in combat in the jungle in a military effort that we cannot win and from which we will have extreme difficulty extricating ourselves.”
While inconceivable that Brennan would wish to trim the organisation to the bone, he and his colleagues should be mindful about the idea that was expressed by none other than Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1991 and 1995. It is one that continues a long line of suspicion with its sceptics resident the US State Department. On both occasions, the Democrat Senator introduced abolition bills for the CIA. The Central Intelligence Agency Abolition Act of 1995 suggested that the State Department would assume and absorb the organisation. “Secrecy,” warned Moynihan (Jan 4, 1995), “is a disease. It causes hardening of the arteries of the mind. It hinders true scholarship and hides mistakes.” Brennan’s latest drive is hardly likely to change that trend.