Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

The sensational revelations of recent years about the Central Intelligence Agency almost obscure a larger point: The Agency is just no good at what it's supposed to be doing. So writes the author, a former CIA officer, who describes a corrosive culture in which promotion-hungry operatives collect pointless intelligence from worthless foreign agents. Reform, the author warns, may be impossible.
The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

THE arrest of Aldrich Hazen Ames, a CIA operative turned KGB mole, in February of 1994, fundamentally changed the public perception of the clandestine service of the Central Intelligence Agency. Before Ames only "case officers," operatives who recruit and run foreign agents, knew how dysfunctional the service had become. Since Ames the outside world has learned that much is rotten in the Directorate of Operations -- the official name of the clandestine service, known to insiders simply as the DO. Yet the senators and congressmen who oversee the DO, the journalists who report on it, and the civilian directors who run it have failed to understand and to confront the service's real problems. Even among CIA analysts who work in the Directorate of Intelligence, the overt, think-tank side of the house, few have grasped the extent of the DO's decrepitude.

Politically charged, usually lurid stories of CIA misconduct have deflected attention from telling questions about U.S. intelligence. Journalists level charges of Agency involvement in Latino drug-smuggling rings. The American wife of a Central American guerrilla accuses the DO of complicity in torture and murder. Female case officers sue their male bosses for sexual discrimination.

All these affairs have blackened the Agency's image. None advances the debate on whether the clandestine service actually spies well. Protected by secrecy, by a disciplined and obedient bureaucracy, and by the average outsider's basic ignorance of and fascination with espionage, the leadership of the DO has pre-empted and stalled pressure for Agency reform.

In 1985 I joined the Directorate of Operations. A devout cold warrior, I had no qualms about espionage or covert action against the Soviet Union and in defense of America's national interests. I was proud and eager when the Near East Division chose me to join its ranks. I had dreamed for years of applying my academic training in Islamic history to the DO's Middle Eastern mission.

Twelve years later I retain an appreciation for espionage -- for those rare moments when a case officer contributes to his nation's defense. But I have long since lost my pride in the DO, which has evolved into a sorry blend of Monty Python and Big Brother. I resigned in 1993.

When current and former case officers gather, their conversations inevitably converge: they wonder whether the DO has irretrievably fallen apart. A few years ago I asked a former colleague who had served in Moscow whether she had ever successfully explained the DO's problems to an outsider. "No, never," she replied. "I've given up trying. You have to explain so much you get lost in the details, or you just sound like a whiny, unpatriotic left-winger."

The CIA, with a certain fanfare, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The Agency wants the American public, and especially Congress, to believe that its men and women won the Cold War, along the way had a few problems, and yet are now rising to the challenges of the twenty-first century. In front of the intelligence-oversight committees in Congress senior Agency officials repeat the CIA's new mission statement about battling terrorism, drugs, the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and rogue regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and North Korea. With the Ames fiasco receding, some current and retired CIA officials are asserting that if Congress and the press would only back off, the professionals would once again get the job done.

CIA recruiting

One feature of a closed society is that it lies to itself as readily as it lies to outsiders. Writing as "X" in his 1947 assessment of the Soviet Union, the diplomat George F. Kennan borrowed from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; the passage applies equally to the CIA's present-day Directorate of Operations.

From enthusiasm to imposture the step is perilous and slippery; the demon of Socrates affords a memorable instance of how a wise man may deceive himself, how a good man may deceive others, how the conscience may slumber in a mixed and middle state between self-illusion and voluntary fraud.

The sad truth about the CIA -- what the Ames debacle didn't reveal -- is that the DO has for years been running an espionage charade in most countries, deceiving itself and others about the value of its recruited agents and intelligence production. The ugliest DO secret is how the clandestine service encourages decent case officers, gradually and naturally, to evolve into liars about their contribution to America's security. By 1985, the year Ames volunteered to spy for the KGB, the vast majority of the CIA's foreign agents were mediocre assets at best, put on the payroll because case officers needed high recruitment numbers to get promoted. Long before the Soviet Union collapsed, recruitment and intelligence fraud -- the natural product of an insular spy world -- had stripped the DO of its integrity and its competence.

Younger operatives are resigning in droves, because they have given up hope of reform. The attrition was sufficient to provoke an investigation by the inspector general in 1996. Though the inspector general's office did a poor job of questioning young case officers who had resigned, the final report doesn't deny the increasing resignation rate among the best and the brightest who entered the DO during the Reagan years. Nearly three quarters of the case officers from my 1985 junior-officer class have quit the service. When my class entered, we were told that the DO had the lowest attrition rate -- under five percent -- in the U.S. government. Though this figure was no doubt inaccurate -- a normal and healthy rate of attrition in any bureaucracy should be higher -- it does reflect the DO's credo that officers don't quit the clandestine service unless they are flawed. Within the DO and in front of Congress senior officials downplay the rising resignation rate and even deny that the directorate's younger officers -- let alone its best ones -- are abandoning ship.

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