CIA and the Wiz­ard of Oz

The Rus­sian hack­ing story shows there isn’t much to see be­hind the agency’s cur­tain

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By An­gelo M. Codev­illa

An anony­mous CIA of­fi­cial tells The Wash­ing­ton Post and The New York Times that Rus­sia hacked to elect Don­ald Trump. Gives zero de­tails. The CIA re­fuses to meet with the con­gres­sional in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees. After a week of me­dia echoes that the vot­ers were vic­tims of “fake news” con­spir­a­cies in­clud­ing from the Rus­sians, The Hill re­ports: “Poll: More than half of Amer­i­cans both­ered by Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in elec­tion.” Hence John Podesta, Hil­lary’s cam­paign man­ager, for­merly Pres­i­dent Obama’s se­nior coun­selor, was on firm public re­la­tions grounds when he con­tended that the 2016 elec­tions were not “free and fair.” Presto: Amer­ica’s elec­toral re­pu­di­a­tion of the rul­ing class is on the skids to­ward dele­git­imiza­tion.

The Trump team helps grease those skids. The nor­mally sure-footed Kellyanne Conway said Pres­i­dent-elect Trump “to­tally does” re­spect the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, while Mr. Trump’s Chief-of-Staff-to-be Reince Priebus an­swered “no” when asked whether he thought CIA Di­rec­tor John Bren­nan was “po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.” Truth­fully, The Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported “Trump team tones down skep­ti­cism on Rus­sia hack­ing.” Mr. Trump’s fail­ure to ques­tion the le­git­i­macy of what the CIA is do­ing to dele­git­imize him reprises Ge­orge W. Bush’s ac­qui­es­cence as CIA em­broiled his pres­i­dency in fake scan­dals.

But ques­tion­ing the CIA’s in­tel­lec­tual au­thor­ity and pol­i­tics is es­sen­tial to keep­ing it hon­est, to ful­fill­ing the pres­i­dent’s and Congress’ own re­spon­si­bil­ity, and to the public’s grip on re­al­ity.

What is the CIA is do­ing to Mr. Trump? What is the point of anony­mous ac­cu­sa­tions that Mr. Trump’s re­fusal to lis­ten to some CIA brief­ings shows his pride in ig­no­rance? How does Mr. Trump plan to re­act when — not if — the CIA will pub­li­cize “top se­cret” con­clu­sions con­tra­dict­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s poli­cies or when it will claim he failed to heed se­cret warn­ings that may never have ex­isted? The CIA has done such things rou­tinely to Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tions.

In short, the CIA has al­ways been part of the left wing of Amer­ica’s rul­ing class. The “Rus­sian hack­ing af­fair” is an­other in­stance of the perennial ef­fort by which this class de­fends its claim to be the ar­biter of truth and au­thor­ity. Since the CIA has al­ways possessed far fewer facts with far greater in­cer­ti­tude than the body politic imag­ines, it con­fuses its of­fi­cials’ so­cio-po­lit­i­cal predilec­tions with facts. Over more than a half-cen­tury, the CIA has pur­veyed them as facts be­cause very few out­siders ever get be­hind its lay­ered cur­tains of se­crecy — which it flashes open for fa­vorite jour­nal­ists. Se­crecy, which is es­sen­tial to in­tel­li­gence, presents a well-nigh ir­re­sistible temp­ta­tion to cover in­suf­fi­ciency and self indulgence with the stan­dard ob­jec­tion: “Our con­clu­sions are based on facts of which you are not aware and that we can­not share with you.”

The CIA has not re­sisted this temp­ta­tion be­cause the me­dia and the movies have bought into its myths of om­ni­science and der­ring-do; and be­cause only very rarely have the pres­i­dents and mem­bers of Congress whose duty it is to make judg­ments about foreign af­fairs ques­tioned what there is be­hind the CIA’s cur­tains. Sel­dom have they ex­er­cised their right to look be­hind them. Had they looked, they would have seen that, be­hind all those codeword clas­si­fi­ca­tions — with the ex­cep­tion of mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence and a few very “black” pro­grams — there is of­ten very lit­tle there.

Nec­es­sary as rig­or­ous, un­re­stricted, in­de­pen­dent over­sight is, it can­not re­solve the CIA’s ba­sic prob­lems — e.g., a hu­man in­tel­li­gence sys­tem that is in­creas­ingly a car­i­ca­ture of it­self, a lack of coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence that con­tin­ues to un­der­mine the re­li­a­bil­ity of all col­lec­tion. But it can dis­tin­guish what is known from what is opined. It can re­duce, if not elim­i­nate, the dis­par­ity be­tween how much or lit­tle there is be­hind se­crecy’s cur­tains and what ex­ec­u­tive pol­i­cy­mak­ers and Congress be­lieve. My job as the de­signee of the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee’s bud­get chair­man, with clear­ances cut across all com­part­ments, was to com­pare the CIA’s claims about op­er­a­tions and analy­ses with the un­der­ly­ing facts. When CIA Di­rec­tor Robert Gates gave me the agency’s 40 top peo­ple as a cap­tive au­di­ence, I stressed that dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween fact and opin­ion is key to the in­tegrity of in­tel­li­gence.

Nor can pres­i­den­tial, con­gres­sional and me­dia skep­ti­cism about the CIA’s pro­nun­ci­a­men­tos fix its ad­dic­tion to in­ter­fer­ence in U.S. do­mes­tic pol­i­tics or pol­i­cy­mak­ing. But de­mys­ti­fy­ing in­tel­li­gence, sep­a­rat­ing what is real from what is in the movies and TV, would limit in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials’ pre­ten­tious­ness, what pol­i­cy­mak­ers ex­pect from in­tel­li­gence, as well as the public’s credulity.

Above all, knowl­edge that, all too of­ten, there is lit­tle more be­hind the CIA’s cur­tains of se­crecy than what Dorothy found in the Land of Oz would re­mind all that noth­ing that in­tel­li­gence says or does not say can re­lieve pres­i­dents, their agents and Congress of any re­spon­si­bil­ity what­ever for the de­ci­sions they make or fail to make.

An­gelo M. Codev­illa is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Bos­ton Univer­sity and a mem­ber of the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion’s work­ing group on mil­i­tary his­tory. His lat­est book is “To Make and Keep Peace Among Our­selves and with All Na­tions” (Hoover In­sti­tu­tion Press, 2014).


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