Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why does the CIA still exist?

On a regular basis, politicians of all stripes will bloviate about the need to trim the federal budget, eliminate waste, and generally have government do a better job for the taxpayers. Well, here's a suggestion, something that would plug a giant black hole that's sucking dollars into some bizarre netherworld, the government should get rid of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was created following World War II in response to the Cold War. Communism with a Capital C posed such an existential threat that various policy-makers decided it would be a good idea for the U.S. to have a permanent intelligence service that functioned independently of every other agency.

From what I can tell, those people, from President Truman on down the government chain of command, were pretty much totally wrong. Based on everything I've seen and read about the CIA's performance over the past 7 decades, everything they touch turns to crap. They work really, really hard and still manage to be dead wrong over and over and over. Either that, on those rare occasions when they've got it right and they really do know what's going on, they don't bother to tell anyone what they know.

I know. I know. I've ranted on this subject before. So what inspired this latest rant? I just finished reading The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. By the time I was done with it, I was starting to feel like strapping on a C-4 vest myself and heading for Langley wouldn't be a bad idea. There's nothing quite like learning that the guys in the CIA thought it was more important to keep hoarding data than it was to bother telling anyone in the FBI's counter-terrorism unit that several known terrorists were in the U.S. and taking flying lessons. The fact that Al Qaeda and other groups had been talking for many years about (a) taking a second shot at the World Trade Center and (b) flying airplanes into buildings was apparently irrelevant. After all, alerting the FBI would have let Al Qaeda know that U.S. intelligence was tracking them. Words fail me. I'd love to know what the point of gathering intelligence is if you don't plan to ever use it. If you're not going to use it, then that intelligence gathering is as pointless as hoarding used matchbooks or Hummel figurines.

Bottom line. The Central Intelligence Agency knew what Al Qaeda was up to, they knew it was just a matter of time, and they did absolutely nothing to prevent it. Tell them to go into another country and figure out a way to overthrow its government and they're right there, setting up coups and doing the happy dance. Suggest to them that maybe they do something proactive to help their own country and what's the response? A stone wall, silence, and active efforts to prevent U.S. law enforcement from finding out just what the CIA does know. I'd suggest that the next time around the terrorists go after CIA headquarters, but why would they? Based on all the evidence, the one building in the country that's never going to be a terrorist target is that structure in Langley, Virginia.

National Security Agency buildings and operatives should be pretty safe, too. They're another agency that has a pack rat mentality: they also hoard data apparently solely for the sake of hoarding data. Neither agency is much of a threat to any potential terrorists; CIA and NSA are voyeurs, not actors. They like to watch, but they're never going to do anything useful. If they do act, they'll manage to get it wrong or create a situation that leads to major headaches down the road -- the CIA isn't real good at thinking about long term consequences. If they were, they'd never have cooperated with the Pakistani intelligence service in supporting the taliban.

Of course, when it comes to anti-terrorism efforts and our bungling government, the CIA isn't exactly alone in its stupidity. One of the more depressing sections of the book describes the FBI's attempts to investigate the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. The American ambassador to Yemen apparently created more problems for the investigative team than any of the Yemeni officials did. According to multiple sources, Barbara Bodine was more concerned with preserving the illusion of good relations with the Yemeni government than she was in helping find out exactly who was responsible for the deaths of American sailors. When the FBI's lead investigator returned to New York, Bodine refused to allow him to re-enter the country, which effectively knee-capped the investigation. At the time (and continuing to this day, for that matter) Yemen was teeming with operatives and cells of various jihadist groups, a fact that was well-known in the intelligence community but Bodine apparently preferred to ignore. In a just world, Bodine would now be rotting in some obscure hellhole, demoted to file clerk status or teaching at a cash-strapped community college, but no such luck -- she's a regular lecturer at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Political and International Affairs.

I say "illusion of good relations" because another thing that's become abundantly clear through the various books I've read on the subject is that the U.S. in general can be truly stupid in figuring out what's going on in the minds of our "allies." Maybe it's an American fault, but over and over we get lied to, sometimes in truly outrageous no-one-in-their-right-mind-would-believe-this-crap fashion, but the politicians keep right on taking people solely at face value. The Saudis repeatedly told the Americans, yes, we'll help you get Osama while at the same time they were steering money into the terrorists' treasuries. Al Qaeda would never have succeeded without the active, albeit covert, support of multiple Arab governments. Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt. . . none of them worried about Al Qaeda and similar groups as long as those groups stayed in Afghanistan.

I'm not quite sure just what the takeaway is for me from this latest excursion into the incompetent cesspool that is American government. I already knew bureaucracies tend to be incredibly inefficient, and the more money that gets poured into them without any accountability, the more inefficient and incompetent they become. The CIA is a black hole: what are they spending money on? Who knows -- it's all classified, but Charlie Wilson's War with its descriptions of million dollar payrolls for Afghan warlords did a nice job of illustrating how easy it is for them to waste money. Further, all bureaucracies tend to end up focusing more on preserving their personal turf than on the reason they were created in the first place. And of course I knew that there are always desk monkeys who over-interpret the rules and create roadblocks where none should exist. You run into those people everywhere, from the power-tripping jerk at the DMV who doesn't want to accept your out of state birth certificate as legitimate because it's not exactly the same format as the one his state uses to the Human Resources clerks who insist on remarkably narrow definitions for job qualifications. I guess I just hadn't realized just how bad it was in the parts of the government we all hope are actually trying to help us, and for sure you don't expect to see pretty vindictiveness and personal power tripping on the ambassadorial level.

It is definitely time for me to stop reading recent American history -- I need to immerse myself in some upbeat, cheery fiction for awhile, something that will look good compared to the morass that is the current "war on terror." It's definitely time to re-read Game of Thrones. 


  1. Game of Thrones, well, it's cheerier.
    Love your writing.

  2. these government spy agencies are massive. Soon they will be redundant because everyone will be working for them at some level.

    the Ol'Buzzard


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