why we should like the CIA

I like Obama and the majority of what he’s done so far, but I’m disappointed by his failure to support the CIA. The CIA takes their orders from the President of the United States, after 911 Bush said to go after the terrorists and they did. He approved rendition and the use of intense interrogation and even torture despite his supposedly higher moral christian values. He set the tone for what was to come, and what was to come is a dark time in the history of the US yet the focus is on the actions of the CIA and not those who set their policies.

After the cold war the Clinton administration gutted the CIA even though then more than ever it was needed because of the massive changes the power vaccum would bring. It also changed the rules so that the CIA had a much harder time gathering intelligence, for instance it became forbidden to recruit as an operative anyone who was or had been part of a terrorist group, which was madness! Terrorist cells are incredibly hard to penetrate and one of the very few ways they can do this is to recruit terrorists as agents. How can an intelligence organization function without co-opting the very people they need information on? The result was that through cuts and frustrated people leaving the CIA became under-resourced and undermanned at the very time it was most needed. If the CIA had been better supported they may very well have prevented 911 and history would have been very different.

It takes years of investment and effort to build up an intelligence network to watch terrorists, you can’t snap your fingers and make it appear. However, you can, if you are president, snap your fingers and make someone dissapear into the dungeons of a friendly foreign power for some “intense interrogation”, and when you’re as desperate for intelligence as the administration was at the time that would probably appeal. Now, 8 years later our heads are clearer, we’ve forgotten how we all felt after the attacks which sparked these policies and we don’t like what was done. We can’t go after our own former president and his staff can we? I mean, that’s way too hardcore isn’t it, so let’s instead go after a nebulous government agency that everyone likes to hate. What’s the worst that could happen? Try another 911 or worse.

Intelligence is not about satellites or spyplanes, it’s about people. People interpret the pictures, people listen to communications intercepts, and people piece together the disparate information from 100 sources into a cohesive picture that officials need to make decisions. The best people at the CIA are there because they want to be there, because they believe in it and they want to serve the people of the US. OK, it’s a government agency so there’s paper-pushers and bureaucrats galore, but at the core there’s some people who really know what they are doing and boy do we need them! These people gather and process the information that the government uses to make decisions from economic to to military posture, and they are the ones who are best places to protect the US against further terrorist attacks. These tasks are vital to the long-term welfare of the USA, so these people are vital as well. Most of them are well-educated and intelligent and could do very well in the private sector, the only thing keeping them in their moderately-paid government jobs is the motivation they get from doing the job itself. If we destroy the morale of the organization they’ll leave, the CIA loses skills and knowledge that are irreplacable. Intelligence networks will be lost, and it will take years to rebuild them even if it can be done. It takes years to make an intelligence officer, you can’t just hire them ready to go.

What the CIA needs is continuity, not chaos every time a new administration comes in. Good long-term intelligence requires clear goals set out years in advance and then be followed up, not a top-down disruption every time there’s a new president. In the era where nuclear terrorism is certainly possible more than ever weneed the CIA whether we like it or not. A global power must have a global intelligence service to function effectively. Yes, the CIA makes mistakes, and yes they sometimes do things we would consider objectionable but sometimes that’s the way it has to be in a nasty, brutal world. Yes, the interrogations went way too far, but Guantanamo Bay was also way too far, the invasion of Iraq on a pretext was way too far and it all came from the very top. Let’s remember that before we start a witch-hunt that will destroy the morale of the organization that is far and away our best defense against international extremism. I’m not saying the CIA should be above the law, instead let’s make that law apply to EVERYONE evenly, if we aren’t willing to prosecute those who gave the orders then we can’t go after those that followed them.

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