Can the CIA Be Fixed?

By Sulc, Lawrence B. | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Can the CIA Be Fixed?


Sulc, Lawrence B., The World and I


Can the Central Intelligence Agency be fixed? When U.S. intelligence failed to predict India's nuclear testing in May, the director of Central Intelligence (DCI) asked Adm. David Jeremiah, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to investigate.

Two of the admiral's key assessments were (1) human intelligence (humint) worldwide is weak, and (2) analysts are overwhelmed by satellite data. In the case of India, there is too little information from human assets, and, almost everywhere, there is too much from imagery. What Should be done?

Perhaps "spy" satellites were aptly named once, but now their itineraries and capabilities are often known to their targets. India was able to hide much of its preparations from overhead surveillance. Moscow's long, close relationship with New Delhi undoubtedly permitted it to share its experience in evasion and deception. If so, India learned the game and played it well.

The shortage of CIA humint, on the other hand, is a perennial problem in many places, a point highlighted by several high-level investigations in the past.

Admiral Jeremiah pointed out a number of "systemic" problems in the intelligence community (IC), including its penchant for "mirror imaging" and its "underlying mind-set" that India would not do the wrong thing.

Mirror imaging, long identified as an American cultural shortcoming, is not supposed to be practiced by intelligence professionals. In any case, the failure to predict Indian nuclear tests is hard to understand, given the high priority that nuclear nonproliferation intelligence has had for a long, long time.

The intelligence machines are doing just fine, it seems--the satellites and computers and sensors and imagers, and all that. It's the human beings who are not running fast enough; the beleaguered collectors and analysts are overwhelmed by data. They are also possibly unduly influenced by policymakers, who on touchy subjects can and do reject (sometimes, continually) intelligence they do not like, it never being quite "good enough." (This administration, after all, is not known for its affinity for the IC any more than for the military.)

Several observers recommend giving the DCI greater control over the entire intelligence budget and more authority over the whole intelligence community. The DCI should establish more coordination of all collection, on the one hand, and all analysis and production of final intelligence, on the other. Additionally, the CIA should call on outside analysts for help when needed and for alternate views.

It is in Congress that much intelligence "reform" will take shape, much having originated there for more than 20 years now. The CIA is fortunate, for the moment at least, that the two congressional oversight committees are chaired by wise and friendly members, with some serious support from the minority. Such has not always been the case. The agency should savor that situation and make the most of it, for it is from Congress that major reforms will probably come.

IN NEED OF LEADERSHIP

The thing the CIA seems to need most, it seems, is leadership. DCIs come and go--10 in five years--and not all were stellar. Occasionally, moreover, DCIs understand less about realities in their own country than elsewhere.

The true dimensions of the anti-U.S. Left is one of those realities often not properly understood at Langley. A poor understanding of domestic matters has caused pathetic gaffes. A case in point was the ill-advised trip of the then DCI to Los Angeles in 1996 to engage in dialogue with radical leftists who charged the agency--using former Contra assets--with trafficking in cocaine in American inner cities.

To expect to conduct dialogues with committed anti-U.S, leftist ideologues is futile. Fortunately for the truth, several investigations, public and private, in time, refuted the charges.

Its mission, albeit necessarily foreign oriented, should not prevent the agency from making realistic appraisals of America, as well as of the rest of the world.

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