all the president’s spies

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Bob
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    says:

    “Harry Truman, who presided over the creation of the modern US intelligence apparatus, famously said that what he sought was a secret newspaper, something that would divine the hidden agendas and developments of mysterious foreign actors in the dawning cold war… But what Truman got was something more suited to what his cold war policies required: a sprawling apparatus devoted to covert action, subterfuge, disinformation and lawlessness. Once upon a time, the agency was candid about what it needed to be. ‘Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply,’ wrote Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in a secret 1954 report for Dwight D. Eisenhower about revamping the CIA’s covert actions. ‘We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.'”

    “The CIA’s Failings” by Spencer Ackerman. The Nation 6/26/2008

    If your proposition can be distilled to, “Replace the CIA with something better”, I guess I would have to vote for that. The bungling and failures of the CIA almost qualify as common knowledge. “Blowback,” a CIA internally coined term, expresses the nasty consequences of even purported successful operations. (Let’s not even consider the “blowback” of outright failures like The Bay of Pigs and Iraq WMD prior to 2003.)

    So the obvious questions, “What would be better?” Or even, “Can there be something better?” “Would shifting intelligence gathering to State or Defense insure better results?”

    Perhaps this whole enterprise is as General Doolittle wrote “fundamentally repugnant.”Report

  2. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    I don’t really have the answers, Bob. I see the CIA as a dangerous weapon in the hands of a too-powerful executive branch. It lacks coherent oversight. Would that improve under the State or Defense departments? Probably not if the agency was merely transplanted. It would retain too much of its old self. We probably need to start from scratch, but Lord knows what sort of impossible task that would be…Report

  3. Avatar Chris Dierkes
    Ignored
    says:

    well if you want to focus on actual intelligence gathering then rather than this ludicrous (and wasteful and illegal) programs like mass surveillance of US phone records in huge data banks, you could basically create an open-source intelligence gathering service. A kind of CIA-wiki I suppose. It’s not like bin Laden & Crew are particularly shy about publicly proclaiming what they are about. Same thing with the stupidity of creating an anti-cyber war department in the Air Force (WTF???) rather than simply using the talent (a lot of which can be accessed quite cheaply and is built much more around pride/esteem than bureaucratic gold stars) that already exists in society. To do so would require a loss of control over course, would make any gathering services more transparent and therefore more open to political review. Plus it’s well intelligent, so given our government we can rule that one out.

    I suppose the CIA will continue to stumble and bumble along, largely missing out on the big stuff, lacking direction, definition, and purpose.Report

  4. Avatar Roque Nuevo
    Ignored
    says:

    ‘Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply,’ wrote Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in a secret 1954 report for Dwight D. Eisenhower about revamping the CIA’s covert actions. ‘We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.’”

    This only takes account of Soviet espionage and subversion against us—even during the years of alliance in WWII. We had no spy agency until after the war; the Soviet spy agency was founded at the same time as the October “revolution.”

    Read the work of Christopher Andrews on the Soviets to be “fair and balanced.” The Cold War was a war, after all.Report

  5. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    The Soviet spy network was so vastly superior to anything the West had in place – despite their continued practice of offing “westernized” agents – that it makes the CIA look truly laughable. Bumble along is right….Report

  6. Avatar Bob
    Ignored
    says:

    Ackerman again. Today, from attackermann.firedoglake.com he writes:

    “I find the case for getting rid of the CIA uncompelling, largely for the reasons laid out in this Nation piece I wrote last year. I’ll expand on this when I get some time. But quickly: 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. The CIA is wishful thinking made into an agency. Getting rid of the agency is less important than getting rid of the wishful thinking.”Report

  7. Avatar Roque Nuevo
    Ignored
    says:

    The Soviet spy network was so vastly superior to anything the West had in place – despite their continued practice of offing “westernized” agents – that it makes the CIA look truly laughable. Bumble along is right….

    And yet… we won.

    Also @ Bob: Ackerman’s comment echoes George Friedman‘s analysis, which I posted in another thread here. He says that the torture program was because of our intelligence failures after the Cold War. He says that

    Sept. 11 was terrifying for one main reason: We had little idea about al Qaeda’s capabilities. It was a very reasonable assumption that other al Qaeda cells were operating in the United States and that any day might bring follow-on attacks. (Especially given the group’s reputation for one-two attacks.) We still remember our first flight after 9/11, looking at our fellow passengers, planning what we would do if one of them moved. Every time a passenger visited the lavatory, one could see the tensions soar.[…] This lack of intelligence led directly to the most extreme fears, which in turn led to extreme measures. Washington simply did not know very much about al Qaeda and its capabilities and intentions in the United States. A lack of knowledge forces people to think of worst-case scenarios. In the absence of intelligence to the contrary after 9/11, the only reasonable assumption was that al Qaeda was planning more — and perhaps worse — attacks.

    Collecting intelligence rapidly became the highest national priority. Given the genuine and reasonable fears, no action in pursuit of intelligence was out of the question, so long as it promised quick answers. This led to the authorization of torture, among other things. Torture offered a rapid means to accumulate intelligence, or at least — given the time lag on other means — it was something that had to be tried.

    He concludes,

    The United States turned to torture because it has experienced a massive intelligence failure reaching back a decade. The U.S. intelligence community simply failed to gather sufficient information on al Qaeda’s intentions, capability, organization and personnel. The use of torture was not part of a competent intelligence effort, but a response to a massive intelligence failure.

    Report

  8. Avatar E.D. Kain
    Ignored
    says:

    Yes we did, Roque, but not thanks to our intelligence service but rather to our superior economic model, our freedom and ideals – essentially, we maintained a more sustainable political/economic model than the Soviets.Report

  9. Avatar Roque Nuevo
    Ignored
    says:

    ED Kain: It’s fantastic that you have the definitive answer to such a complex question as, How did we win the Cold War? We all should sit at your feet and learn.Report

  10. Avatar E.D. Kain
    Ignored
    says:

    How did we win the Cold War, Roque?Report

  11. Avatar Bob
    Ignored
    says:

    “The United States turned to torture because it [had] experienced a massive intelligence failure reaching back a decade.”

    Okay, let’s say that is true. (I’m more inclined to say that FBI and CIA failed to follow the information it had. Remember the August 2001 PDB, Al Qaeda determined to strike? But leave that aside.)

    Who is responsible for the “decade” long failure? That would cover the end of Bush I, all Clinton, and the first months of Bush II. So who or what precluded the CIA from gathering intelligence?

    If torture was necessary to correct a “massive intelligence failure” Bush should have gone to Congress and sought changes in the law, abrogated treaties and other international agreements. God knows Congress was nothing but a rubber stamp in those months. Instead he cooked the law books and had his stooges redefine torture almost out of existence.Report

  12. Avatar Roque Nuevo
    Ignored
    says:

    ED Kain:

    Like any complex situation, the end of the Cold War will demand a complex solution. I’m certain that the CIA played its part in this explanation. So, I have to answer that I just don’t know the answer—unlike you, who are so sure of your answers.Report

  13. Avatar Roque Nuevo
    Ignored
    says:

    Bob: I don’t know who was responsible for our intelligence failure. There is enough blame to spread around, for sure. But the fact of the intelligence failure is what I want to emphasize, no matter who’s to blame.

    And with this, I want to emphasize that I do not “justify” the torture program—if that’s what it was. I just want to explain it in a way that allows me to understand how good people with good motives could do it. In doing this I can’t possibly put myself above the authorities who did authorize the program—if that’s what it was—much less demand their prosecution.Report

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