Intelligence: July 13, 2001

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How CNN Scoops the CIA- In the last two decades, military and political leaders have come to depend more on media outlets like CNN, often at the expense of the CIA. This was dramatically demonstrated in the opening minutes of the 1991 Gulf War. As coalition bombers hit Baghdad, CNN broadcast the images, live, worldwide. The CIA had nothing to match this, and that was widely noted. 

There were many other instances where CNN scooped the CIA and there are many reasons for it.

First, the CIA has, over the decades, gotten into the habit of stressing data collection (mostly images and electronic transmission) at the expense of analysis. It takes so long to go through all this stuff to do an analysis, that CNN has plenty of time to get their own version out. Sure, the CIA analysis is generally more accurate and complete. But in the news, as well as the intel business, the first story out is the one that sticks in people's minds.

Then there was the matter of how CNN and the CIA viewed their subjects. CNN was looking for wild, exciting news. The CIA analysts tended to assume that the foreigners they were covering would act as reasonable people. The CIA was right, from a historical point of view. Most national leaders do tend to be reasonable. But the ones who make the headlines are the wild men (Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler, Etc.) who do not act reasonably, but do act up in a way that CNN knows will draw attention. The media has a nose for disasters, while the CIA tends to go on about how no one in their right mind would not do this or that. 

For whatever reason (fear of leaks or convincing opposition), the U.S. government tends to keep the CIA ignorant about what the government is going to do next. On the other hand, the government regularly leaks stuff to the news media. Inside the CIA, there are always a lot of TVs tuned to CNN.

Then there's the experience factor. The reporters and correspondents for the media often spend decades running down the news. There are a lot more experienced reporters out there than CIA analysts. But the CIA compensated for this by hiring many narrow specialists. This was fine for the kind of detailed analysis the agency did, but a disadvantage when it came to sniffing out fast moving events. Naturally, the detailed CIA's reports go largely unread, while every one immediately sees the timely bulletins broadcast on CNN.

There are some very good CIA analysts, but they tend to get promoted to supervisory positions if they stick with the agency. There are a lot of supervisors in the CIA, which brings us to another problem. When an analyst turns in a report, it goes through several layers of supervisors, all of whom tend to make changes. Most of these edits take the edge off whatever points the original author was trying to make. By the time, often a long time, the report reaches the customer (senior political and military leaders), conclusions are muddied and so "evenhanded" that you can't really tell what conclusions, if any, there were. CNN has no such problems. Stories are run down, reported and delivered very quickly. Often the reporting of events is live, like the bombing of Baghdad. Fast breaking, live news is what CNN lives for and what the CIA is not equipped to deal with. 

It gets worse. The CIA does not like to bring in hired guns when it needs skills it doesn't normally have. CNN, like most media organizations, makes frequent use of freelancers. But then, the CIA is getting better. There have been several waves of reforms within the CIA since the 1970s. One of the more successful ones was to have the CIA and FBI, traditionally bitter rivals, share senior people. Supervisors from the FBI go work at the CIA (doing the same type of job), with the CIA sending senior people to the FBI. This solves a lot of communication and liaison problems. 

Getting the right people to work for the CIA has been a more difficult problem. You have to attract truly altruistic and patriotic people for some of the more dangerous espionage jobs. Recruiting these people became easier in the late 1990s as the bad taste left from earlier CIA scandals in the 1960s and 70s faded. But at the same time, some of the "reforms" have backfired. For example, the CIA cannot put anyone on the payroll (as a local source of information in a foreign nation) if they are involved in human rights abuses. Unfortunately, when you are trying to keep tabs on terrorists, most of the people who know anything have blood on their hands. Rules like this are often quietly ignored (with promises, not always kept, that higher ups in the U.S. government will protect the CIA people in the field who are bending the rules and risking their lives to obtain information.)

The CIA can learn a lot from organizations like CNN, and they have. But the CIA is a large government bureaucracy, not a profit making organization that must respond to the demands of the market or die. In 2001, CNN, losing market share, cut loose a lot of people and reorganized. If this doesn't work, CNN could disappear. This provides tremendous motivation for the folks at CNN. Alas, there is no similar motivational tool available for the CIA. It basically comes down to what kind of people you have in the CIA and how many of them are willing to go the extra mile to make their organization work. The current war against terrorism has given the CIA a heroic cause to motivate their people and attract recruits. But after that, things can go bad again, like they have in the past. 

 


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