Does Obama have it in for the CIA?

Friend of the Gormogons, Leinenkugel fancier, and rabid Capitals fan Steven F. Hayes writes:

All of which raises an interesting question: Was Leon Panetta hired primarily to oversee the dismantling of the CIA?

I suspect not, given that bureaucratic reform seems near, if not at, the Administration’s agenda. But…it’s not a trivial question, especially given that the CIA is a bugbear in the radical/academic community in which Obama has spent his entire life. If there were an agency he‘d abolish, the CIA might be it.

But the really interesting question is—would dismantling the CIA be a bad thing? Your Œc. Vol. doesn’t think the answer is clear. While the Agency has done a lot of good things—many of which the public will never know of—and employs a whole raft of great, smart people, the fact is that its results as an institution are decidedly mixed.

Probably the single greatest failure of the CIA was completely missing the impending collapse of the Soviet Union—the Agency’s primary target over its lifetime. Indeed, if memory serves, the CIA was issuing estimates showing East German GNP surpassing that of West Germany in the ’80s. It took Ronald Reagan’s faith that the Communism was a “sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written” (1983) to turn the U.S.’s foreign policy to actively undermine the Soviets. The CIA often took an adversarial role in this process, and Reagan‘s maverick CIA director, William Casey, had to fight his own building almost as much as the KGB. (Gormogons readers will surely recall the more recent recurrence of the CIA vs. the President They Serve trope with the Agency’s obstruction of Bush 43’s foreign policy.)

The CIA contains three large, semi-autonomous directorates, Operations (DO), Intelligence (DI), and Science & Technology (DST) which sometimes work well together and sometimes seem to drift independently of each other. It has been a recurring theme of would-be intelligence reformers—that this structure is at least partially responsible for the Agency’s dysfunction. Suggestions have included taking the DO and making it smaller and more oriented towards active espionage, rather than the semi-passive recruitment of “assets” that makes up the bulk of the operatives’ work (and evaluation); shrinking and focussing the DI more sharply to produce more opinionated, sharp “product,” rather than fairly homogenized intel-by-committee that’s bureaucratically safe but fairly useless; and perhaps turning the DST over to the NSA to unify intel-technology development.

Your Volgi doesn’t vouch for any of these approaches but concedes the need for serious reform at the CIA, which contrary to its reputation is largely (though not entirely) a huge, huge bureaucracy typical of Washington, the vast majority of whose employees (none of whom I mean to disparage) live and work in Northern Virginia. It’s not a flexible organization, and its internal priorities and rules often have deleterious consequences for its critical job: intelligence gathering, analysis, and covert operations.

If Obama is attempting to dismantle the CIA (which I still doubt), then, it’s not necessarily a bad thing—with the important proviso that if he means to, he should if and only if he’s got a serious, objective, effective plan for the reconstruction of the U.S.’s active intelligence capacity (which I doubt even more).

Disclosure: Some people acquainted with various Gormogons work or have worked in intellgence in various capacities for various agencies, and the Volgi accepted a job offer from one which was abrogated based on that institution’s reliance on a pseudoscientific Magic Box. No inside or classified information, nor even simple gossip, has informed this post; it’s based entirely on familiarity with the literature on intelligence reform. Also, buy FotG Claire Berlinski’s very funny, insider-y CIA novel Loose Lips: A Roman à Claire. Now.

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