Do We Need a CIA?

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"Do We Need a CIA?"

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I seriously doubt that anyone in the Obama administration or the congress is going to seriously consider abolishing the CIA, but I think John Judis is correct to say that the idea should probably get more consideration:

The question that Congress might ponder, but won’t, is whether the structure of our foreign policy apparatus – the power and responsibility vested in a secret branch of government — invites abuse. That was the position of the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan who argued for abolishing the CIA. He didn’t want to eliminate intelligence, but he wanted to return it to the purview of the State Department, while giving the armed forces the responsibility for overseas intervention.

I’m not saying I favor this, but it’s certainly worth discussing. One need only consider George Tenet’s reign as CIA chief. Tenet came in with a reform portfolio; and he initially did well as a manager; but by the time he had been forced out of office, the CIA itself had committed more war crimes, and bollixed more critical intelligence inquiries than ever before. Was that because Tenet was deeply incompetent? Or was there something about the agency’s structure in government that invited presidents to twist it for their own sordid political ends? Could the armed services have as easily complied with these torture memos? I think not.

The CIA, as currently constituted, has basically two responsibilities—intelligence analysis and covert operations. But analysis is already being done at the State Department, and seemingly done better, so one could simply beef up the resources involved in the State Department. The military, meanwhile, already has the capability to do some covert operations and there’s a general consensus in favor of shifting resources out of heavy weapons platforms and toward special operations.

The picture of the torture situation that’s emerging counts, I think, as a strong point in favor of the Moynihan position. It’s not just that CIA personnel were involved in doing something bad, it’s that the specific institutional structure of the government really does seem to have played a role. After all, why were CIA personnel involved in this at all? Pre-Bush, the CIA didn’t have any interrogators. The FBI had interrogators, and the military had interrogators, but the CIA didn’t. But responsibility for interrogations wound up gravitating toward the CIA not because the CIA had relevant expertise but precisely because the CIA has an institutional history and track record of law-breaking and war crimes.

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