The CIA – a low intelligence agency

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, December 5 1988

Exactly eight years ago, President Elect Ronald Reagan huddled with his advisers in a little house in Jackson Place just across the road from the White House and planned the brave new world which they were going to create when they took over the reins of power from the reviled Jimmy Carter a few weeks later.

And the bravest, boldest, most exciting part of this new world was the Central Intelligence Agency, the cutting edge of their new attack on global communism. The Reagan team was unstinting in its scorn for President Carter’s timid, legalistic approach to intelligence and for his CIA chief, Admiral Stansfield Turner, whose future had already been terminated in favour of Reagan’s garrulous campaign manager, Bill Casey.

Against the humiliating background of the 52 Americans held captive in the Tehran embassy, the future of the CIA had been a hot election issue. The 1980 Republican platform had spelled it out: “At a time of increasing danger, the US intelligence community has lost much of its ability to supply the president with accurate and timely analyses… The United States must have the best intelligence capability in the world. Republicans pledge this for the United States.”

Today in Washington, it is President Elect George Bush who is huddled with his advisers, plotting and planning, but there has been a significant shift in priorities. The CIA is nowhere near the top of the Bush agenda, and the question of who will run the agency is barely mentioned. The reason for this is not that the problems of intelligence have gone away but that the bold Republican approach to the issue has been a horrible failure, leaving the Bush team with no clear line of approach.

Looking back over the eight years of Reagan’s CIA, the landscape is littered with the debris of failed intelligence operations. The failures can often be traced to the basic assumption which underlay those excitable meetings in Jackson Place – that the President need only remove the bridle of legalism and give the CIA its head to win the global intelligence race. The truth is that when Reagan removed the CIA’s bridle, the agency merely stopped to graze.

One of the earliest failures involved the Russian imposition of martial rule in Poland in December 1981, which caught Reagan’s White House flat-footed. It was particularly embarrassing since Carter’s failure to foresee the Russian invasion of Afghanistan had provoked some of the Reagan camp’s most patronising sneers.

We now know that several months before the Russians moved, the CIA was passed chapter and verse on their plans by a member of the Polish general staff, Colonel Kuklinski, who has since defected. The CIA – after a year of its new management – simply failed to believe what they saw, preferring to see the plans as disinformation designed to provoke them into a premature intervention. This was unpleasantly similar to Carter’s experience over Afghanistan where all kinds of clues to the Russian build-up were either misinterpreted or still waiting to be analysed when the tanks rolled over the border.

The US intelligence operation in Lebanon was a long-running and grotesque failure. Reagan was persuaded by the CIA that he could send in US troops and restore order to the country. Simply wrong: the President was forced to retreat with his tail between his legs. The CIA had a long-standing relationship with a Phalangist leader, Bashir Gemayel. Casey broke it off. A few months later, Gemayel became President, so Casey had to try and restore it by offering him protection. Gemayel accepted and was promptly blown to bits by a bomb planted in his office.

These operational failures were compounded by fatal failures in security: the CIA’s station chief, Robert Ames, and most of his staff were killed when a suicide bomber hit the US Embassy in Beirut in April 1983; the replacement station chief, Bill Buckley, was kidnapped and tortured to death. Bill Casey’s attempt to take revenge for Buckley by killing the Shi’ite leader, Sheikh Fadlallah, was handled so incompetently that the car bomb intended for him left him unscathed and killed 80 civilians in the street instead.

During Casey’s tenure at the CIA: Edward Lee Howard became the first CIA officer to defect to the Soviet Union after blowing great chunks out of the CIA operation in Moscow; John Walker gave the Russians enough secret codes to decipher more than a million messages; Ronald Pelton told the Russians all about the top secret tapping of their underwater communication cables; Jonathan Pollard gave suitcases full of secrets to the Israelis. And in each of these cases, subsequent inquiries found that the CIA had missed clear warnings of what was happening.

When a KGB veteran, Vitaly Yurchenko, decided to defect, the CIA made him so depressed that he changed his mind and slipped away from a restaurant in Washington and went home (leaving behind a glass of vodka which is still displayed on a shelf above the door). A congressional inquiry concluded that Reagan’s CIA habitually treated defectors badly: some of them were not even questioned; one was offered a new life working in a laundromat; a very senior woman defector was told to find work as a secretary.

The Iran Contra scandal provoked a political crisis tied to the issue of White House lies. But beneath that, it was a structural intelligence failure: the CIA had no assets in Beirut capable of locating the hostages; the CIA relied for information about Iran on the Israelis who manipulated them; at the Nicaraguan end, they lost control of the Contras to the National Security Council and Oliver North.

Reagan’s CIA has been no more succesful than Carter’s was because, eight years ago, the Reagan team attacked the wrong target. They blamed Carter and his obsession with the rule book and with human rights for the CIA’s failures. But the common thread that runs through the failures has nothing to do with legalism. The CIA is simply an inefficient organisation.

In Veil, Bob Woodward’s history of the CIA during the Reagan years, there is an account of a meeting which was held eight years ago by President Elect Reagan with the then head of French intelligence, Colonel Alexandre de Marenches, an old hand at the cold war. When Reagan asked him for advice, the veteran intelligence man told him: “Don’t trust the CIA. These are not serious people.”

Reagan ignored the advice, but what Marenches was pointing to was the worst defect of the CIA. It functions like any other bureaucracy, in that its original objectives have taken second place to ensuring its own survival.

Its intelligence is analysed by rows of pan-handlers. The process is notoriously slow, but none of the analysts is about to complain about that and talk themselves out of a job. The process is also unreliable since the inbred analysts rapidly develop a consensus view of a particular issue – for example, that the Russians would not intervene in Poland – and none dares to break ranks.

Its operational arm has become extremely cautious, and Casey often found his gung-ho plans being smothered by the lower ranks. More than any other Western intelligence agency, it uses standard diplomatic cover for its officers, spurning the more dangerous but also more productive use of ordinary civilian cover. Its agents also lack skills: for example, it was recently disclosed that most of the CIA officers in the Mexico Embassy do not speak Spanish.

All this leaves Bush with a managerial problem – ironically the kind of fine tuning at which the defeated Dukakis excels. But the indications in Washington are that the debate about the future of the CIA has not moved on and is paralysed over the traditional issue of whether there should be more or less illegal operations.

Since Casey’s death from a brain tumour, the CIA has been run by William Webster, a former judge who was moved across from the FBI. The word from the CIA’s headquarters just outside Washington DC is that Webster expects to be kept on by the new Bush administration and that he stayed by his phone all day on the day after the election, waiting for the call. He is still waiting.