A KIND WORD ON BEHALF OF CIVILIAN INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES
Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye had an interesting post today “Understanding the problem” regarding an op-ed by former Reagan administration Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. As is usual, I find myself in agreement with Dave on the majority of his points, however, on one part of Dave’s post I must register a dissent:
“I have always found the idea that you can reform a bureaucracy farfetched. You can eliminate a bureacracy, navigate around it, or put another layer in; you can’t reform a bureaucracy.
I’d also like to point out what the “MI” in MI-5 stands for: military intelligence. I don’t believe that the CIA has the attitude, culture, or, frankly, the ability to execute its nominal mission. Consequently, I think that the CIA should be abolished and its functions placed completely under the Pentagon (as it used to be”
While Dave’s criticisms regarding the recent performance of the CIA and the difficulty of reforming a bureaucracy may be on target, the suggestion of dropping the CIA’s statutory functions into the lap of the Pentagon is a really, really, bad idea. That the CIA has failed to carry out a number of its major functions with effiiency does not mean that the military is well suited to execute them in Langely’s stead. In actuality, the reverse may be true; the historical record of military intelligence is a narrow and parochial one. And not just in the case of the United States either.
Intelligence activities have a number of facets, including:
“Overt” espionage under diplomatic cover
Open source intelligence collection
Covert operations (sabotage, assassination, coups)
The military, for demographic reasons as well as those of institutional culture or focus, is not the ideal candidate for all of these missions. A few of them might be bettter placed in the hands of State Department personnel than in those of, say, the Marines. Even in the case of covert operations of a paramilitary nature that the military is better equipped to handle than is the CIA, it is useful in certain situations for diplomatic and legal reasons for these actions to be carried out under the aegis of the CIA instead of the United States military. Aside from issues of the UCMJ, what might otherwise be an act of war under international law, if performed by a member of SOCOM or the DIA, becomes plausibly deniable if done by a deep cover member of the CIA’s Special Activities Staff. Or better yet, a contract employee.
Nor am I, for reasons of bureaucratic checks and balance, eager to place all of America’s foreign intelligence in the hands of a single member of the Cabinet. That is simply asking for trouble down the road. Bureaucratic competition is an inefficient way to allocate resources but it provides at least minimal incentives not to screw up too badly. And it functions as a comparative check on the productivity and reliability of an intelligence agency as well.
The CIA may well be resistant to reform but I’m not ready to junk the idea of a civilian intelligence agency just yet.