Intelligence: July 5, 2001


The Impossible Dream- When president Truman set up the CIA in the late 1940s, the idea was that it would be the single organization for collecting all intelligence information available to the United States and analyzing it for the president and senior military leaders. From the beginning, things began to go wrong. The initial leadership, and much of the staff, of the CIA were veterans of the World War II OSS (Office of Special Services.) The OSS was more a gang of highly capable spies and operators than intelligence analysts. So from the beginning, the analysts took a back seat to the field agents; the "operators.". 

The analysts tried harder, and the operations crew got a lot of bad publicity over the next thirty years. It's not that the operators were a complete failure, it's just that the president needed good analysis more than he needed wild guys who could bring down a troublesome foreign government. Worse, the analysts had a job of unprecedented difficulty. The Soviet Union, for all it's economic and political flaws, was very good at one thing; keeping secrets. The Soviet Union was the most efficient police state in history. Even the nazis admired the iron grip the communists maintained over their population. Despite that, the CIA analysts were better at securing Soviet secrets than the CIA spies in the operations division. So difficult was espionage against the Soviet Union that the United States eventually came to rely mainly on "technical means" (satellites, recon aircraft and listening posts) to do most of their spying. 

Even so, the CIA never quite worked as originally intended. There were several problems. First, and most troublesome, was the inability of the CIA to centralize all the intelligence collected by American government organizations. This led to the second, and more serious problem. The many other intelligence organizations (in particular the army, navy, air force and state department, plus just about every other arm of government) not only collected and interpreted information from overseas, but their analysts didn't always agree with the CIA's conclusions. This abundance of different conclusions allowed decision makers unhappy (for political or personal reasons) with the CIA's analysis to select another, more acceptable, conclusion. This defeated the basic reason for having a CIA in the first place.

The problem was not ignored. In the early 1960s, the intelligence activities of the three armed services were put under the supervision of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). This, in theory, would at least reduce the squabbling between the military services. This idea backfired, for the DIA promptly tried to turn itself into a uniformed version of the CIA. The worst result of this policy was the disappearance of much good information available to the troops. Before the DIA came along, the services published a lot of useful data on Soviet and Chinese armed forces weapons, equipment and operational methods. After the DIA came along, most of this stuff was classified secret and disappeared from public view. Less visible was the use of the DIA's analysis to push ideas and projects favored by the military leadership. The CIA was set up, in part, to avoid this. The need for dispassionate analysis was not soon in coming. Throughout the Vietnam war, the DIA and CIA analysis was often at odds. The CIA reports were generally more pessimistic, but, in the end, proved to be more accurate. Unfortunately, the president wanted to win the war and the DIA analyses bent the facts in an attempt to keep the president happy, or at least optimistic.

In another case of "no good deed goes unpunished", the CIA came out of the Vietnam era tainted with responsibility for a lot of the bad intelligence work it had not done. The CIA was still officially the "Central" intelligence agency. The DIA scurried for the shadows while the CIA took the heat. It was now open season on the CIA. The agency was attacked for inaccurate analysis (a bad rap if there ever was one) and shady, and sometimes embarrassing, operations in foreign nations (true, but this had little to do with intelligence). For a while, the CIA even got nailed for intelligence gathering operations in the U.S. (a no-no according to its charter.) This, again, was a result of the agency trying to please its political bosses by helping out the FBI in digging up dirt on anti-Vietnam war protesters and assorted radicals during the 1960s. 

By the 1970s, most of the old OSS operators were gone; fired or retired. The analysts were getting better, but their output was increasingly viewed with skepticism. Worse, the analysts were more frequently expected to put the right political spin on their studies. The one part of the CIA that was doing well was the technical branch. If you were involved with spy satellites, electronic data gathering or computers, you were a prince. This is where the money went, and the techies came up with enough fascinating photos (taken from space) or messages (often phone conversations) plucked out of the air over enemy territory to make themselves much admired. Who needed spies or analysts if you had dynamite visuals and tapped phone calls. 

Going into the 1980s, success caught up with the technical crew. America was increasingly dependent on spy satellites, and then the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986. There was suddenly no way to put new and replacement satellites up. With wars going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was an intense need for intelligence, and for a while there were only a few working satellites available to get it. A bureaucracy evolved to tightly control who could use satellite and electronic ease dropping resources and who could see the results. By 1991, the American commanders in the Persian Gulf were loudly complaining about how difficult it was to get timely access to all this great intelligence data. The brass were also upset over the wishy-washy demeanor of the analysis. No one wanted to come right out and make a conclusion. This, plus the techies reluctance to show anyone their pictures quickly brought forth intense criticism of the entire intelligence apparatus. Most embarrassing were the comments that useful intel was often available from CNN before the CIA was able to deliver it.

So, after half a century, the intelligence is still not centralized, nor readily available to those who need it. Various government committees and oversight panels continue to look for solutions. But so far, there are no solutions, only a sad history. The CIA has been, so far, the impossible dream.




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