Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Close the CIA?

Christopher Hitchens has a new article up at Slate called, "Yet Another CIA Failure," in which he argues that the CIA should be shut down entirely. This is the logical extension of the attack on the CIA currently underway on the left, allied with civil libertarians of all stripes. Hitchens basic case is that the CIA is both incompetent and immoral. He writes that CIA intelligence failures prior to 9/11
had left us defenseless and ignorant. Unprofessional and hysterical methods of interrogation, therefore, were unleashed in part to overcompensate for—and to cover up—a general lack of professionalism at every level of the agency from the top down. The case for closing and padlocking Langley and starting all over again with an attempt at a serious national intelligence body becomes more persuasive by the day.

Also, because he opposes torture, and the CIA has been associated with it in some capacity almost from its founding, Hitchens sees what he calls a culture of "institutional debauchery." He worries about the agency becoming a "secret state within the state," and fears that we might soon find that people have been "disappeared" to protect CIA secrets. (Except that they obviously weren't).

Aside from ignoring all evidence that contradicts his position, there is one big problem with Hitchen's overall point. It's almost axiomatic for intelligence agencies that the public only knows about their failures, and not their successes. There's little way to quantify attacks that didn't happen, plots disrupted, and any other events that might have been part of an alternative future without the CIA. Because the CIA by nature operates in the shadows, the public sees only one part of the picture -- usually the spectacular failures.

Is it possible the CIA is so incompetent that we'd be better off with a new service? Yes. But I have no reasonable way of assessing that and neither does Hitchens. I could just as easily argue that the complete prevention of terrorist attacks on the U.S. after 9/11 demonstrates the incredible effectiveness of the CIA. As for what he calls "debauchery," the unsavory elements associated with intelligence agencies are merely part of having them in the first place.  They are unfortunately necessary to protect the U.S. Many of their operations involve actions that would be illegal under domestic or international law. They are not clean and tidy. Those who get hysterical about CIA torture or other ugly actions are either naive, ignorant, or willfully blind to the history of intelligence operations.


  1. The CIA is absolutely indispensible for America's safety. That's why the USA was constantly occupied by foreign nations prior to WWII.

  2. "The CIA is absolutely indispensible for America's safety. That's why the USA was constantly occupied by foreign nations prior to WWII."

    Safety encompasses a huge number of things other than preventing invasion. The threat of terrorism is best countered by intelligence, and the CIA is our lead agency. If we didn't have it, we'd have something else in its place doing basically the same sorts of things.