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What is wrong with US intelligence activities

Whether or not Adm. Bobby Inman resigned as deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency as a ''matter of principle,'' what is now known of some of the disputes that marked his tenure make it plain that America's troubles with intelligence are far from over.

Of most immediate concern is an effort by National Security Council staff members, reportedly resisted by Admiral Inman, to create Big Brother right on schedule for 1984. This was to have been a ''super'' counterintelligence agency that would have combined the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the counterintelligence staff of the CIA with a computerized data bank, thereby creating the potential for intrusion into every household in the country.

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It is as if the investigations of the mid-1970s, with their disclosures of drug experiments on unsuspecting Americans, collusion with the Mafia in assassination plots, and an unrelieved series of national disasters and humiliations bred of misguided ''covert action,'' never had occurred.

What the reemergence of the monstrous counterintelligence idea tells us is that the basic flaw revealed by the Church committee in the Senate and other congressional investigators has not been corrected. In short, despite the expenditure of literally hundreds of billions of dollars during the past 30 years the United States does not have a reliable intelligence service.

What it does have is a set of competing intelligence bureaucracies. In terms of the nature of the activities in which they are engaged, the most questionable are the covert action and counterintelligence staffs of the CIA.

''Covert action'' as currently established in the CIA has nothing remotely to do with intelligence, understood any way you choose to read the word. It is a form of warfare first institutionalized in the World War II office of Strategic Services involving sabotage, execution of opposition leaders, and psychological warfare.

It should have been obvious from the start that for a democratic society to pursue such activities short of a state of war is to risk corruption of its own free institutions. It is no accident that former CIA operatives involved in the Watergate conspiracy came from the covert action staff.

There was some justification for keeping a small ''OSS'' in the Defense Department as a planning staff only, but the beginning of the Cold War led to the surreptitious insertion of the leftover OSS covert action staff into the then newly created CIA. In that hothouse of secrecy the covert action ''camel'' grew to such proportions that, as the Church committee found, it came to dominate the agency.

''Counterintelligence,'' as the term implies, is essentially a negative function. It seeks to block foreign espionage but in the process it can produce some useful information. Thus the principal contribution of the CIA counterintelligence staff has been to identify and ''turn'' Soviet agents abroad into sources for US intelligence.

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Like a police vice squad, however, counterintelligence staffs run a constant risk of being corrupted by the very practices they are supposed to be fighting. Pressure from the CIA counterintelligence staff for an internal US control system more ''efficient''than that of the Soviet KGB has waxed and waned for years and apparently has surfaced once again in the form of the National Security Council ''Big Brother'' concept.

''Intelligence,'' as such, tends to be the first victim of such an approach, primarily because the patient gathering, sifting, and assessment of information - the essence of true intelligence - seems much too dull for the American psyche. It is more exciting to be a ''doer'' chasing after foreign spies or consorting with the Mafia to poison Mr. Castro's soup.

Also indicative of the American preference for ''hands-on'' technology rather than ''philosophy'' (defined as any sort of abstraction) is the superb technical collection system built up in the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency (NSA). Although nominally coordinated by the Director of Central Intelligence these are, in fact, quasi-independent agencies tightly and jealously controlled by the secretary of defense and their respective chiefs.

The DIA's satellites and reconnaissance aircraft can take pictures of literally anything on earth. The NSA can eavesdrop on most of the world's electronic communications. The CIA's counterintelligence staff abroad and the FBI at home can track down enemy spies (as well as keep a jealous watch on each other).

What the US cannot do with any consistency is make sense out of what it all means. In part this is due to the crowding out of the assessment function of the CIA by the counterintelligence and covert action activists. It has ignored centuries of British experience and current practice that show competent intelligence assessments to be the product of individuals, not of committees. America's national assessment system is based on one suffocating committee on top of another all the way from the regional directorates of the CIA and DIA to the National Security Council.

That problem is compounded by the practice of recruiting analysts direct from the college campus on promises of good pay and lifetime job security. Anyone who thinks people such as that are going to take risks - the essence of competent intelligence assessment - plainly never has worked for the US government. Interestingly enough, Israeli intelligence experienced its first major failure, in the 1973 October war, after it adopted the CIA practice of using advanced degrees rather than performance as its primary staffing and promotion criteria.

Ray S. Cline, formerly of CIA and now of the Georgetown Center for Strategic Studies, has proposed that the CIA approach to intelligence be discarded in favor of an institute that would devote itself to producing true intelligence, largely in the open and without the excess baggage of covert action. We would do well to look into that idea, at least as a start.