Where’s the Intelligence at the C.I.A.?

The tale of the C.I.A.’s torture tapes grows longer, more twisted and interlaced. The list of question grows apace, too.

The tale of the C.I.A.’s torture tapes grows longer, more twisted and interlaced. The list of question grows apace, too.

What part did members of Congress play? When were these tapes showing C.I.A. agents inflicting pain on their captives destroyed? Who destroyed them? On whose orders? What were the motives for doing so? Or is this yet one more C.I.A. ruse? We are dealing here with an institution of habitual mendacity.

To listen to the politicians talk about the agency when they are in their committee rooms, you might think that the C.I.A. is an organization peopled by a gallant crew of patriots out on the fringes of empire baffling our enemies and advancing our interests. The historical record must lead a person to severely modify that judgment.

The record comes to us in the form of a book by Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the C.I.A. The title comes from Dwight Eisenhower’s summing up of the accomplishments of the agency in his time. Mr. Weiner takes it from there, giving us the full C.I.A. story based on attributed quotes from those who worked in and with the agency and also from a coal mine full of C.I.A. documents, most of which had been kept secret until recently. It is well to remember the organization’s history when hearing about waterboarding, torture tapes and deceptions practiced on us Americans and on our enemies. This is what the C.I.A. does; this is who they are.

This is who they are in the sense that the organization has a history of having always been more or less out of control, going to excesses and plunging into ill-judged, often imbecilic ventures on its own. From its first beginnings, as Mr. Weiner shows, the organization has been dominated by overly patriotic, morally defective, manic types prone to rev up and roar into action without a practical understanding of what they are getting into or what the consequences might be. Such personality types apparently have been recruiting their own replicas for decades, which throws some light on C.I.A. agents doing their enhanced technique numbers on whomever got caught in the net and were sent to Abu Ghraib, or were “rendered” by sinister night flights to nameless torturariums hidden here and there across the globe.

Running around the world, spinning intrigues, overthrowing governments (or trying to), involving itself in frequently ludicrous adventures has worked out to mean that the Central Intelligence Agency was neither central nor intelligent but has often been an agency of mindless international chaos. No other conclusion is possible when you read the catalog of C.I.A. activities around the world, in Greece, in Indonesia, in Guatemala, Chile, Iran, Laos, Congo, Afghanistan, China … the list goes on. More often than not, the agency failed to advance the cause of democracy, often being at least partially responsible for putting bloody, tyrannically minded men in power. Beyond that, the agency must shoulder the blame for cock-ups that cost the lives of thousands of liberty-loving men and women who were sent to their deaths because the agency had no idea in hell what it was doing.

At the same time as the action wing of the C.I.A. was mucking things up, the intelligence wing of the organization was getting them wrong. Sometimes its intelligence failures, as what happened during the Korean War, cost the lives of many American soldiers. The scale of the C.I.A.’s intelligence failures challenges the imagination. In the 1960’s, its ignorance resulted in the “missile gap” belief that America was behind the Soviet Union. In the 1980’s, the agency was the last to find out that the Soviet Union was a dilapidated Second or almost Third World country about to fall to pieces. In the 2000’s, it did not know that Iraq had no atom bombs. In effect the C.I.A., with its drunks, its madmen, its lazy bums and—also—its good but ultimately ineffectual personnel, left president after president blind as to what was happening in the world.

In the end, the agency is the creature of the executive and legislative branches of our government. But fixing the blame does not throw light on how such an important organ of the state could have been so useless for so long. Part of the difficulty doubtless goes to the general problem of effective government administration and part to the blind spots that empires breed in their citizens. From Rome to America, certain traits inimical to intelligence-gathering and analysis adhere to the citizens of empires, such as the belief in one’s innate superiority, the disinclination to inform one’s self about other people’s cultures or learn to speak their languages and a permanent condition of overheated patriotism.

Penetrating—much less controlling—the C.I.A. has become more difficult in recent years because the organization has fractured. Mr. Weiner writes that, “Corporate clones of the C.I.A. started sprouting all over the suburbs of Washington and beyond. Patriotism for profit became a $50-billion-a-year business. … Great chunks of the clandestine service became wholly dependent on contractors who looked like they were in the C.I.A. chain of command, but who worked for their corporate masters. In effect, the agency had two workforces—and the private one was paid far better. By 2006 something on the order of half the officers at the Baghdad station and the new National Counterterrorism Center were contract employees, and Lockheed Martin, the nation’s biggest military contractor, was posting help-wanted ads for ‘counterterrorism analysts’ to interrogate suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo prison.”

The C.I.A. contractors each have their political sponsors and allies who have their own schemes and ambitions. Thus, when a National Intelligence Estimate is released musing about the likelihood that Iranians are or are not making a nuclear bomb, there is no way of telling if these statements are based on any or no knowledge of what is going on in Tehran or whether it happens to suit some faction in the White House or the State Department to have the public believe one thing or another.

For decades the C.I.A. left our presidents to fly blind. A few of them knew better than to trust the C.I.A. Today we all know better, and if we continue to take these people seriously, the fault will be ours.

Where’s the Intelligence at the C.I.A.?