It's time to dismantle the CIA

June 18, 1998|By Neil C. Livingstone

CIA has become a synonym for failure.

It no longer provides policy-makers with the kind of accurate and timely intelligence needed to protect the United States, nor does it deliver to taxpayers a fair return on their money. It is time, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, has suggested, to consider dismantling the CIA and restructuring the nation's intelligence establishment.

The CIA's latest failure was its inability to foresee the nuclear tests conducted by India, which precipitated Pakistan's tests. This failure occurred despite a series of public pronouncements by Indian officials that they intended to resume testing and overhead reconnaissance suggesting unusual activity at the test site.

The Indian failure follows a major CIA fiasco in northern Iraq intended to overthrow Saddam Hussein, various spy scandals that have rocked the agency in recent years, a mixed record of monitoring the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, ZTC and its inability to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The CIA would have us believe that only its failures are publicized, while its triumphs are, out of necessity, cloaked in secrecy. This is nonsense.

The United States spends in excess of $30 billion a year on intelligence. This should guarantee a first-rate product, but all too often the intelligence is too little, too late. First, there is an over-reliance on the technical collection of data at the expense of so-called "humint," or human intelligence. Only humint can give policy-makers a real sense of an adversary's intentions, and this was clearly lacking in the recent failure regarding India.

Information, not knowledge

Second, the CIA and its sister agencies collect an enormous volume of information on a vast number of subjects. But it is just that: information, not knowledge. It is in the processing of the information that the system breaks down. There is an over-reliance on computers to sort out what is and is not relevant. Some way needs to be found to bring critical intelligence to the attention of policy-makers more quickly.

Third, the agency no longer has the covert action capabilities that once permitted it to shape events rather than be a bystander. Not only is there an aversion to risk-taking, but often this capability has been squandered, as former CIA chief Stansfield Turner has observed, on projects where U.S. interests are not really at stake.

Finally, while the CIA is the last remaining global intelligence service on Earth, it is also a massive bureaucracy, with typical bureaucratic problems. Also, the agency's sense of fraternity is gone, replaced too often by sloth, careerism and resistance to new ideas. Says a former intelligence official, "The CIA today reminds me of a body builder. Heavy, muscle-bound, yet incapable of delivering a punch."

With the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the rise of new threats, a number of CIA people are just trying to hang onto their jobs.

Where the agency has critical shortages in some regional specialties and languages, not to mention emerging technologies, it is saddled with people who made their careers fighting an enemy that no longer exists and are threatened by any significant effort at major reform.

At the core of the problem is leadership. A majority of recent directors of central intelligence, or DCIs, appear to have been selected more for their confirmability than their leadership or management abilities -- or ideas.

So, what would the new spy agency look like? It would be leaner and meaner. It would also be younger, less rigid and more diverse, thereby perhaps recapturing some of the dynamism that used to characterize the CIA.

The new agency would emphasize greater global balance than in the past, so as to eliminate the blind spots that have plagued U.S. intelligence in recent years. There would be less reliance on purely technical means of collecting information. Most controversial, it would have an action arm, with expanded ability to influence events around the globe.

Ironically, Hollywood remains the CIA's best friend and biggest booster, thanks to the naivete and political biases of many in television and the movies. Although the CIA has suffered failure after failure, Hollywood continues to turn out motion pictures portraying the spy agency as all-powerful, ruthless and coldly effective.

If only it were so.

Neil C. Livingstone has written nine books on terrorism. He wrote this article for Newsday.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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