Intelligence or operations: A key question for evaluating the CIA

The New Yorker has a valuable long read this week, asking Has the C.I.A. Done More Harm Than Good?

"Almost from its creation" author Amy Davidson Sorkin notes, "there was a sense that something about the C.I.A. was off. The split between covert action and intelligence gathering and analysis was part of it."

This division between analysis and operations re-emerges in some of the recent writing of which Sorkin provides an overview. Nathalia Holt's Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage shows that 'women in the C.I.A. were seen as more natural analysts than operatives—with analysis, in turn, seen as less manly, and less valuable, to everybody’s detriment.'

There is a good case that an evaluation of the CIA should consider analysis and operations separately, mirroring the institutional divide between the agency's own Directorate of Operations, responsible for agent-running, covert operations and counterintelligence, and the Directorate of Analysis, historically the Directorate of Intelligence.

Within the US intelligence community, whose labyrinthine nature Sorkin captures so well, these two directorates often had distinct interests.

Much of the CIA's notoriety derives from the early Cold War record of the Directorate of Operations. 1970s détente brought a wave of redundancies as the necessity for these activities was increasingly questioned. In the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era of scrutiny, many of the Directorate's operations would be exposed, along with its role in a wider state-private network which brought together intelligence officers and private activists in the anti-communist struggle.

In my recent book, I argue that many of many of the private Cold Warriors came from a labour or socialist background, and that their attempt to revive the state-private network in alliance with the Reagan administration was one dimension of the emergence of early neoconservatism.

Reagan's CIA chief, Bill Casey, presided over a revival of covert operations which ultimately peaked with the Iran-Contra Affair of 1987.

The fortunes of the Directorate of Intelligence were rather different. It's analysis was seen as a counterweight to the Pentagon's bureaucratic interest in justifying defence spending. This rivalry became particularly acute during the Vietnam War.

CIA analysts were much less threatened by détente. Along with technical intelligence  agencies like they NSA, they had a potential role monitoring the peace, as well as fighting the Cold War. This brought resentment from the cold warriors who saw them as part of an 'analytical-estimating hierarchy'. 

The conflict was reflected in the emergent field of intelligence studies, where writers favourable to covert action, such as Roy Godson, criticised a school of thought they attributed to Sherman Kent, one of the CIA's most prominent early analysts.

CIA analysis came under direct political attack during the Team B exercise of 1976, accused of under-estimating the strategic threat from the Soviet Union.

During Casey's tenure, CIA analysts would come under pressure to tailor their analyses to the cold warriors' assumptions, an approach which would come under Congressional scrutiny in the wake of Iran-Contra. Similar pressures would re-emerge a decade later during the drive to war in Iraq.

It is arguably the domination of analysis by operations that unites the failures described by Sorkin:

In truth, the C.I.A. has had a “defining failure” for every decade of its existence—sometimes more than one. For Moynihan, in the nineteen-nineties, it was the lack of foresight about the Soviet Union; in the two-thousands, it was the phantom weapons of mass destruction, followed by torture and, in still evolving ways, by the drone-based program of targeted killings, with its high toll of civilian deaths.

Moynihan blamed the CIA for having 'hugely overestimated both the size of the Soviet economy and its rate of growth. This in turn has persistently distorted our estimates of the Soviet threat, notably in the 1980s when we turned ourselves into a debtor nation to pay for the arms to counter the threat of a nation whose home front, unbeknown to us, was collapsing'.

Moynihan himself arguably had some responsibility for this, having supported Team B during his own neoconservative phase in the 1970s, when the CIA was accused of under-estimating the Soviet threat. The perpetuation of that assumption under the Reagan administration helped to ensure that ambitious young CIA managers would make the opposite mistake in the 1980s, often over the objections of their colleagues.






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