The Magazine

The Sorry State of the CIA

From the July 19, 2004 issue: And why it's unlikely to improve.

Jul 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 42 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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BECAUSE OF IRAQ, and a continuing Washington blood-feud over the decision to go to war, both Congress and the press are perhaps more focused on the Central Intelligence Agency than at any time since the Church committee hearings of the 1970s. The departure of George Tenet as director of central intelligence should be an occasion for taking stock, with a view to revitalizing the Agency. Yet its muscle-bound bureaucratization, combined with the failure of the press to accurately represent to the public and to the rest of the government the Agency's actual problems, not to mention the tenor of the current recriminations, holds out little hope that we will see the innovation needed to combat bin Ladenism on the ground: the deployment of a new cadre of operatives working inside organizations like al Qaeda. Despite Tenet's constant discussion of rebuilding the clandestine service, we are still largely stuck in the past.

When I entered the CIA in 1985, Aldrich Ames's treason and the Iran-contra scandal were in gestation, yet headquarters in Langley, Virginia, seemed a happy place. The vast majority of officers were pleased to have William Casey as the director of central intelligence. The die-hard cold warrior had clout at the White House, which meant money from Capitol Hill and respect. The Carter years had been, everyone inside said, a time of drift. The revolution in Iran--the CIA's utter failure to see it coming--and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan--an event belatedly foreseen and poorly understood at Langley--had depressed an institution battered morally by the 1970s. It was difficult to find spooks who liked President Jimmy Carter's director, Stansfield Turner, always reproached inside the clandestine service as a prig.

Under Casey, the Directorate of Operations, the official name of the clandestine service, was awash with cash and manpower. During Ronald Reagan's presidency, the CIA wasn't loved by the liberal establishment from which it had sprung, but neither was it as scorned as it had been under Presidents Gerald Ford and Carter. Of course, insiders had complaints. Many senior DO officers didn't like Casey's love of covert action. Vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, the United States was being, for them, too provocative. For most operatives, espionage was the finest, if not the first, calling of American intelligence overseas. Some analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence, which politically has usually been somewhat to the left of the Operations Directorate, thought similarly. Within the DI, there were concerns that Casey and the Reagan White House were trying to encourage analysis depicting the Soviet Union as more menacing than it really was. (Neither case officers nor analysts are as overtly political as the average American diplomat, who is more often than not staunchly Democratic. But they are not politically neutered creatures, tenaciously holding on to some all-American civil-servant middle ground. Case officers tend to be more earthy and politically incorrect than analysts and diplomats, but such a disposition doesn't necessarily produce hawkishness in foreign affairs or skepticism about the welfare state.) Politics aside, Casey's tenure seemed to most in Langley, and in the stations and bases worldwide, a good if not golden age.

It's good to remember Casey and his CIA when judging George Tenet's tenure as director of central intelligence. In their institutional affections, in their grand vision of how the CIA fits into American power and government, in the (sometimes unjust) criticisms made of them, and in their ultimate failure to build and run competent espionage organizations, the two men are quite similar. It is, of course, their failure to confront the espionage problem that is the least appreciated outside the Agency. The truth is, Langley has waged clandestine-intelligence collection operations in a surreal way, whether against the Soviet empire and a miscellany of other targets during the Cold War or, most damningly of late, against Islamic holy-warrior terrorists. Accepted wisdom has already formed about Casey and Tenet's both nurturing a rebirth of the clandestine service from the doldrums of their predecessors. More than any other directors since the 1950s, they certainly sought to restore the operational joie de vivre and glory of American intelligence.