The U.S. intelligence agency, the CIA, is again under pressure to cut back on its use of agents to gather intelligence, or engage in activities that might be portrayed unfavorably in the media. The immediate cause of this is the case of Raymond Davis, an American intelligence operative arrested by Pakistani police last January for killing two men he believed were coming after him. Pakistani police held Davis for eight weeks. The U.S. insisted Davis had diplomatic immunity and aid would be halted if Davis was not released. But anti-American feeling were exploited, as always, by local politicians and media, delaying the release. The U.S. compromised by paying a bribe of $2.3 million (termed "compensation" for the families of the two dead men, but it's unclear who actually got the money.)
Critics of the CIA are also concerned about Taliban insistence that a recent CIA missile attack in Pakistan's tribal territories, that killed 40 people, actually hit an innocent meeting of tribal elders. This despite the Taliban admission that one of those killed was a senior terrorist leader. The CIA insists that the gathering was organized by the Taliban to plan more mayhem.
This is all part of an ideological battle that has been going on over espionage and intelligence work since World War II. Lots of myths were turned into facts, and ideology became more important than the truth. For example, over the last three decades, the CIA has come under a lot of criticism for not being able to do their job. That has often been true, and the main reason is the climate of fear (of prosecution for something later declared politically incorrect). As a result, intelligence operatives and their bosses see survival as a matter of not taking chances.
The most spectacular recent example of this was the failure to spot the terrorist operation that led to the September 11, 2001 attacks. While much blame was justifiably heaped on the FBI, it was the CIA that first detected the plotters, and was already under orders to stop al Qaeda attempts to make more attacks on the United States. All this began a decade earlier, when al Qaeda damaged New York City's World Trade Center in 1993 bombing. The 2001 attacks did not come out of nowhere. But the CIA had problems at the top (where decisions about what leads to pursue, how, and to what extent all this is shared with the FBI), and at the bottom (and the inability to infiltrate al Qaeda.)
At the same time, other intelligence agencies, like Britain's MI-6 and the Israeli Mossad are much better at gathering information at ground level. They, like most nations, recognize that intelligence operations can get dirty. It's all a matter of how important the intelligence is. The British attitude is that, if you need to do this, do it right, and don't dwell on it. So Britain does have agents with a "license to kill" and, more importantly, laws protecting these men and women from any later prosecution for dirty deeds they were asked to do for Queen and Country. But in the United States, the CIA was held to a different (often changing) standard, and was still expected to get the job done. This approach has not worked.
Despite all the post-911 talk about "more aggressive intelligence operations" to prevent more attacks, the atmosphere inside the CIA discouraged any such thing. All this was largely the result of the CIA being put into a sort of semi-hibernation in the late 1970s. This was an aftereffect of the Church Committee, an investigative operation sponsored by Congress, that sought to reform the CIA. The reforms were mainly about eliminating CIA spying inside the United States, and doing stuff for the president that Congress did not approve of. There was also a desire to avoid any CIA connection with foreign unpleasantness (like using unsavory people as spies or informants). This led to a growing list of restrictions on what the CIA could do overseas, and at home.
Congress was out to make sure no future president (the CIA works for the president) could use the CIA as had been done during the Vietnam war, and before. The CIA interpreted this as "no more James Bond stuff," just use your spy satellites and write up your reports. The Church Committee insured that the CIA became a much less interesting place to work. A lot of the most capable people got out over the next two decades. Recruiting became difficult. Word got around that the daring need not apply.
But after September 11, 2001, the CIA was tossed a huge pile of money and told to staff up and get going. The Church Committee restrictions were largely, if not completely, discarded. Recruiting efforts were greatly expanded, and since September 11, 2001, several hundred thousand applications were received. The agency has had a hard time keeping up with that.
This created some interesting personnel problems, especially in the operations division (the people who go to foreign countries and, well, sometimes do James Bond stuff.) There were few people left in the agency that remembered how to do field ops the old school way. By late 2001, many recently retired field ops guys were being lured back to active duty. You now had a situation where the field ops population was like a cross between a college fraternity and retirement community. There are few people in the middle, age and experience wise. It's almost as bad in the analysis division (where the data is studied and reports prepared.)
The area of the CIA that has flourished in the last three decades has been the geek side of things. These folks were always flush, thanks to a Congress that felt safer with spy satellites, than with spies on the ground. But those days are over. Much of the new technology is going to the analysts (better computerized tools to dig quickly through information) and the field operatives (like Predator UAVs, at over five million bucks each.) A lot of money is going into training (learning Arabic, Pushto, Farsi and Dari are encouraged, and sometimes demanded) and the use of consultants (often former CIA operatives who would not come back full time.)
But after a few years, the Church Committee atmosphere began returning. The major issue was the use of torture to extract information from terrorist suspects. The new Church Committee-like restrictions outlawed things like the use of contractors for interrogations (even if there were no other source of manpower to do the job in time), the use of foreign nations to provide the "vigorous interrogation", the detention of foreigners without giving them access to the U.S. criminal justice system, and many more items that most CIA officials know, from their own experience, will only get Americans killed.
So how does the United States gather needed intelligence? It does it in secret (from many in Congress and, most of all, the media). The other intelligence agencies, like the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) are being allowed to run with these operations. Of course, everyone understands that they could still be hung out to dry down the road. But there are more bosses in the DIA (compared to the CIA) that are willing to back up their operatives (some of whom will get screwed down the road, which is accepted as a risk of the job). Another solution is to outsource many intel operations. The men and women who work for contractors are working without a net (of full U.S. government backing, both diplomatically and militarily). Not all these operatives are even American, but they will do it for a combination of money, adventure, personal beliefs and some assurances that America will provide some support if things get nasty (if only to retrieve the information the agents have obtained.)
The CIA lost its soul, it's heart, and most of its guts, in the late 1970s. Lots of brains are left, with big budgets to buy all manner of neat technology. But the bosses live in fear of grandstanding politicians and headline hungry journalists. While the British, the Israelis, and most other nations, have managed to capture and retain the ability to do street level intelligence, the CIA has not. It now serves mainly to draw fire, while other organizations get the job done.