Amy Zegart and Spencer Ackerman stick up for the CIA against those who muse about scrapping the agency and both do so, in part, in terms that I think prove too much. Zegart says “If you’re looking for culprits, look higher. Interrogation techniques weren’t dreamed up by rogue CIA case officers lacking adult supervision. They were developed, justified, and ordered by senior administration officials.” And Spencer says “the failures of the CIA are failures of American policymaking, which is to say the belief that you can launch all these zipless activities and get away it with it in the dark.”
That’s all fine. And I think it’s a great counterargument to the proposition that eliminating the CIA and re-assigning its legitimate responsibilities to other agencies will be a magical cure-all for America’s woes. But I don’t think it works at all as a general argument.
To look at a different example, New York City used to have an agency called The New York City Transit Police. New York City also used to have a ton of crime. And some people thought it would be good to eliminate the NYCTP as a separate institution and fold its responsibilities into the general responsibilities of the NYPD. Now I think it would have been fair to say in 1995 things like “if you’re looking for culprits, look higher” and “the failures of the NYC Transit Police are failures of New York policymaking.” But none of that means that realigning the institutional set-up of the city government wasn’t an important part of the improved policing of the 1990s.
In other words, sure, it’s hard to think of a problem that you can solve purely through institutional tinkering. But that’s no reason to just stick with the status quo. The fact of the matter is that the CIA is, in part, an institution whose purpose is to allow the president to do stuff that’s illegal. Ultimate culpability still rests, of course, with presidents who order illegal things to be done. But I think it’s bizarre to deny that the existence of an institution with a long track-record of official illegality plays any role in facilitating the issuance of illegal orders.