Letters

Edward G. Shirley replies:

  • The CIA
  • Climate Flip-flop
  • Travels With Jeffrey
  • A Moment of Democracy
  • Advice & Consent
    The CIA

    As a twenty-year veteran of the CIA, I found Edward G. Shirley's article "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" (February Atlantic), painfully accurate. Unlike him, however, I am still an active-duty case officer with the Agency's clandestine service. I can fault Shirley only for failing to mention the pitiful management that is now running this country's most sensitive intelligence-collection programs. I work with one of those programs. Today's Agency is troubled and is being torn apart from within by the very people who run the place. The best people are resigning because of bad management. The best case officers do not choose the management track. Those who do are devoured, politically, by a breed of Agency managers who have mastered the art of schmooze. They are the ones who were left standing when all the other case officers with better sense took early-outs and retirement incentives and bid the rest of us adieu. By and large, this group of dangerously ambitious people is charged with the day-to-day operations of the Agency. To a man (and woman) they are characterized by incredible egos and raging insecurities that have resulted in inconsistent and incestuous management practices.

    Name withheld

    Edward Shirley's article on the current demise of the CIA could not have been more timely. A former case officer myself, I recently returned from a gathering of old friends who are still Agency officers. The article was the centerpiece of conversation. Most of the officers felt it was accurate in its depiction of the problems plaguing the Agency. Every person present expressed disbelief at how wrong things had gone.

    The path to reform is not going to be easy. The problem with trying to implement a solution is that the government can't simply lay off or fire people from this profession. If morale is low and the ranks are purged, disillusionment among those fired will be severe, and they may decide to betray those they feel have betrayed them. The United States received a wave of disgruntled KGB officers after the fall of the USSR, as the organization to which they had pledged their lives crumbled and abandoned them. In some cases those that felt abandoned turned to the United States, and we would be in a very strong position today had Aldrich Ames's betrayal not resulted in all of them being executed. A similar wave from the United States to other intelligence services is not unthinkable.

    Aldrich Ames was unique for his betrayal of the service, not for his alcoholism or incompetence. He blended in, and thus many within the Agency are convinced that there are more like him. Viewing him in isolation, one is struck by the fact that no one noticed his problems. Alcoholics and people plagued by other problems continue to hold senior or semi-senior positions within the Agency.

    What is needed is a clandestine reorganization of the Agency. No fanfare, no media blitz on the "death of the CIA," just a quiet reorganization within the community. Covert Action should be shifted to the military Special Operations Forces. This can be accomplished by simply reducing the number of mandates given to the Agency for such action (presidential findings and notification of congressional committees are required for any covert action to take place). Over time, as veteran officers depart, money for new programs could be withheld, and all covert action could be conducted by the SOF, allowing the covert-action portion of the Agency to die off.

    Human-intelligence collection should be cut back within the CIA, by encouraging retirement and buy-out packages for veteran officers. The training of junior officers should emphasize a focused, reduced role of high quality. Congressional oversight could be effective in this effort. The Directorate of Administration, which exists to serve the three other directorates (Operations, Intelligence, and Science and Technology), should be abolished, with the relevant operations integrated into the existing directorates. Resources should be shifted by Congress to the other branches of the intelligence world, to help cover the transition period wherein an Agency focused on quality intelligence collection is established.

    Name withheld



    Regarding Mr. X's remarks about the Directorate of Operations' "pitiful management": I did describe in my article the problem of upwardly mobile mediocrity, but Mr. X is right to fault me for not hammering home the point. I tried to put the DO's management into a historical context -- to explain why it has over time tended to reward paper-pushing operatives and not officers who actually know something about the country and people they target. This historical explanation offers little consolation, however, to active-duty case officers like Mr. X, who must live with the depressing reality of CIA operations in the future. I wish Mr. X luck in his work -- good case officers can still occasionally achieve worthwhile results, despite the DO's bureaucracy and abysmally low standards. But as his letter suggests, the CIA's "most sensitive" operations and case-officer morale will not improve without a thoroughgoing overhaul of the service which retires much of the senior cadre.

    Which brings me to Mr. Y's thoughtful letter. If George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, or Congress through its power of the purse, doesn't retire or pink-slip a substantial number of operatives, the chances for Agency reform are poor. Though I appreciate Mr. Y's concern about the treasonous possibilities inherent in any layoff at the CIA, this is a risk that simply must be confronted. If you cannot fire useless or reform-hostile officers, then you cannot save the Directorate of Operations. Good young officers, who do the lion's share of the DO's work, will not hang around in appreciable numbers waiting for their less-talented seniors, who control Agency promotions, to be pensioned off.

    Concerning Mr. Y's other points on how to reorganize the intelligence community, I would say that they are interesting but not critical. Covert action is no longer a major factor in the lives of most case officers. It obviously gains a good deal of media attention, because when it involves paramilitary operations, it never stays secret. But the systemic problems of the clandestine service are primarily rooted in how the CIA conducts espionage, the profession that defines the DO. These problems do, however, spill over into "covert" action. The CIA teams dispatched to northern Iraq to assist the Iraqi opposition in the mid-1990s had few competent Arabic-speaking officers. In the Near East Division case officers who are engaged in espionage don't need to learn Middle Eastern languages to rise through the ranks.

    Reform needs to focus primarily on people, operational methodology and accountability, and the DO's intelligence product, not structural reorganization. Directors of the CIA and the Directorate of Operations have been reorganizing the clandestine service for years, changing and abolishing names, offices, and targeting priorities, yet the DO's deterioration continues. I do, however, agree completely with Mr. Y on the need to cut back human-intelligence collection and to ensure good training for the service's young officers.

    Climate Flip-flop

    William H. Calvin ("The Great Climate Flip-flop," January Atlantic) makes some interesting and valid points, beginning with the fact that "global warming" is a misnomer for a phenomenon that should be referred to as anthropogenically induced climate change. Climate scientists have long understood that significant increases in atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations will lead to a response more complex than simple warming. Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in both 1991 and 1995 state clearly that we risk running into "climate surprises" brought about by feedback loops in the climate system. The sudden cooling Calvin describes is one example.

    But the sudden cooling resulting from suppression of the North Atlantic conveyor which Calvin predicts is just one of the many possible outcomes of excessive and rapidly increasing greenhouse-gas loading. Beyond current model predictions, accelerated warming may also come about, through a variety of positive-feedback loops that are not yet modeled correctly. Examples are underestimated positive cloud and water-vapor feedbacks, whereby warming allows the air to hold more moisture, further increasing temperatures (water vapor is a greenhouse gas), allowing more water vapor to enter the atmosphere, and so on; unexpectedly large biospheric releases of carbon dioxide; and releases of methane (also a greenhouse gas) and gas hydrates from melting permafrost and gas hydrates in the Arctic. Unfortunately, we still know too little about these nonlinear feedbacks to predict the likelihood that a sudden warming or a sudden cooling will occur. This is not to say that scientific uncertainty implies that anthropogenically induced climate change should not be taken seriously. Indeed, it would be a real "climate surprise" if the ongoing large anthropogenically induced changes in atmospheric composition did not lead to significant changes in climate.

    A second valuable point made by Calvin is that major decadal-scale fluctuations in climate would be detrimental to society. A booming population, coupled with increased consumption, has stressed many of the earth's ecosystems. Given that climate change would further stress these systems, it certainly would be prudent to examine how we might respond to a rapid cooling or warming. However, to postulate that a sudden rapid cooling induced by changes in ocean currents is likely to occur in the next hundred years is pure guesswork.

    There is currently scant evidence for a causal link between decadal-scale fluctuations in climate and ocean circulation. While there is evidence that the two are correlated, ocean circulation may have changed as a result of a climate shift, rather than being the driver behind the shift.

    To deduce that we are due for a major climatic change because the climatic stability of the past 10,000 years is unprecedented is also conjecture. The fact that the climate has been so stable tells us that the climate of the past 10,000 years has been in a different regime from the previous 100 millennia. A further lack of parallel with the past is that greenhouse-gas concentrations are now at higher levels and are accumulating more rapidly than at any point in the entire period of Ice Ages. Making a direct correlation between past and future behavior is therefore highly uncertain.

    Would a greenhouse warming freshen the North Atlantic enough to cause a thermocline collapse and then precipitate an abrupt global cooling, as Calvin suggests? Although we believe it is premature to extend this hypothesis beyond speculation, two important issues should be raised. First, the evidence from paleo-data and climate models suggests that the cooling coincident with the thermosaline circulation changes is regional, limited to northern Europe. Second, the collective evidence from the scientific literature suggests that an anthropogenically induced climate change has been detected and that this change includes a strengthening of the North Atlantic circulating pattern. It is very likely that this circulation change is also responsible for the steady increase in density that has been observed in the North Atlantic over the past few decades. Thus one would have to say that the climate change that has been attributed to non-natural changes in the earth's radiative balance is also making it less likely that we will soon experience an abrupt cooling in the particular scenario outlined by Calvin.

    The fact is that we are a long way from being able to forecast future climate accurately, particularly where rapid nonlinear changes are involved. Acting on what we know -- that greenhouse gases cause radiative forcings that affect climate -- rather than on conjecture is imperative. It would indeed be prudent to "fight global warming by consuming less" carbon -- or to learn how to consume carbon more efficiently, moving away from our present excessive use of fossil fuels. We should simultaneously continue to increase our understanding of the physical environment and to improve its representation in global climate models, as Calvin suggests.

    However, investment on the scale necessary to find foolproof geo-engineering solutions to rapid climate change could be pointless and may even be dangerous. Without a definite understanding of the effects of rapid climate change, computer-designed geo-engineering solutions are particularly risky, because they cannot be tested in the real world before implementation and could commit us to a cure that is worse than the disease.

    What history has repeatedly shown is that geo-engineering solutions nearly always end up having unforeseen secondary effects. Such a solution proposed in a National Academy of Sciences report ("Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming," 1991) would have geo-engineered global-warming mitigation by periodically injecting reflecting particles into the stratosphere, thereby counteracting some of the effects of global warming. We knew this would work, because we had witnessed cooling from increased stratospheric aerosol loading after volcanic eruptions. We now know that such action would be likely to produce dramatic worldwide ozone depletion. Altering major ocean-circulation patterns could well have similarly detrimental effects on global ecosystems and mankind.

    Sarah Doherty
    David Battisti
    Robert Charlson
    Richard Gammon
    Conway Leovy
    J. Michael Wallace




    Just because great climate flips can happen in response to global warming doesn't mean that they are the most probable outcome of our current situation -- what one might "forecast." (That's one of the reasons I was careful not to "predict" a cooling in the next century.) The issue here is managing high-risk situations: how much effort should be expended on a less-likely possibility, particularly when symptoms suggesting that possibility have occurred many times in the past? There are many everyday examples of this in medicine, where the physician must often act on incomplete information because of the serious consequences of delay.

    Suppose you are a patient, and that given your symptoms and lab findings, there is an 80 percent chance that you've got disease X, a nuisance in the long run but not anything catastrophic. The symptoms, however, are also consistent with another, more serious disease, lymphoma, which can kill quickly and needs early treatment. Even though the chances are only 20 percent that you've got lymphoma, your physician may tell you that you need chemotherapy "for insurance against cancer." You can't just wait to see what develops. The possible consequences of delay are simply too great. The physician who waits for absolute certainty may wind up with a dead patient.

    That's our situation with gradual warming and abrupt cooling. It isn't that abrupt cooling is the most probable outcome in the next century but that an atmospheric warming from any cause appears to be capable of triggering a loss of the warm-water loop through the Labrador and Greenland Seas (the leading candidate for what has caused the observed abrupt global coolings of the past).

    One should not get distracted by which-came-first issues (Is the warming our fault? Do winds "drive" the oceans or vice versa?) but focus on consequences -- and particularly the possible consequences of postponing action, of simply waiting to see what develops.

    Travels With Jeffrey

    Jeffrey Tayler's delightful travelogue "A Greece to Be Discovered" (January Atlantic) refers to the isles of Greece as "pentametered by Homer." The Columbia Encyclopedia says that all the poetry attributed to Homer was in dactylic hexameter -- not five but six feet to a line. The only English example of that measure that I can snatch from memory is in Longfellow's Evangeline:

    "This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks ..."

    Leon Lukaszewski


    If life in Moscow is making Jeffrey Tayler crabby, he's unfairly taking it out on the Moskovskiy Metropoliten ("A Means of Transport," February Atlantic). I would guess that the subways in New York -- to cite one example -- would be much improved by the presence of "hectoring," eagle-eyed attendants.

    Tayler's complaints about "sour-faced" Metro employees should not be the last word on the amazing and efficient Moscow subway system, which is highly valued and used -- in safety -- daily by millions. Like most big-city folk around the world, Muscovites do indeed wear "masks of indifference" when riding the subways, but I do not believe, as Tayler asserts, that riding it affords them a chance to "harden their characters." In fact the Metro is a world-class urban treasure, and Muscovites know it. Physically beautiful, the more than a hundred stations are clean and unvandalized, designed to be used, different from one another, and replete with friezes, frescoes, mosaics, and irreplaceable light fixtures. Soviet architects of the thirties contributed and designed stations in styles ranging from Beaux Arts to Art Nouveau to Art Deco to just plain gorgeous. There are statues and murals honoring ordinary people and historic figures. Yes, it was one of Stalin's giant, ambitious, difficult, and expensive projects (Khrushchev was its chief engineer), and we now know that Stalin was monstrous, but the subway is a success. And it has always been supervised -- hence the attendants who "hector and berate" -- for the safety of riders as well as of public property.

    Eileen Garnett




    I thank Mr. Lukaszewski for pointing out the correct meter of Homeric verse. The isles of Greece were indeed hexametered by Homer, not pentametered.

    My taking to task "hectoring, sour-faced Metro employees" in the first part of "A Means of Transport" was not intended as the last word on the Moskovskiy Metropoliten: I concluded with a description of a friendly old codger and his humane expostulations. My last word was positive.

    Furthermore, I had no desire to run down the architectural beauty of the Moscow Metro (or at least of its central stations; in fact only they are adorned with friezes, mosaics, and so on), which has been well documented elsewhere. The scolding attendants, especially those in booths under train stations like Belorusskaya, are an inescapable part of riding the Metro regularly, and they kindle rancor in most passengers, not in me alone. Their hectoring deserves mention because it derives in part from Stalin's most enduring legacy: the mentality engendered by a state that subjugated and repressed the masses it ostensibly served -- the same masses it so cynically glorified in Metro artwork.

    Thus interpreting my article as a critique of Moscow municipal services misses the mark. It was an exploration of the way that a tragic past discolors the present -- and the way that despite that past, some have managed to retain a warmth of spirit that lightens the mood of those with whom they come into contact.

    A Moment of Democracy

    The road to democracy in the Third World is indeed impeded by authoritarian detours and institutional potholes, as Robert D. Kaplan argues ("Was Democracy Just a Moment?" December Atlantic). But Kaplan slights the biggest obstacle: cultural values and attitudes that are congenial neither to democracy nor to economic dynamism and social justice. Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Kaplan cites, made the case for culture in Democracy in America -- seventy years before Max Weber. Tocqueville argued that the American democratic experiment depended more than anything else on "the practical experience, the habits, the opinions, in short, ... the customs of the Americans." Explaining the crucial importance of culture was "the principal object" of his book.

    Thus Haiti's endless nightmare can be understood as chiefly the consequence of a culture powerfully influenced by traditional African culture, above all the voodoo religion, and the brutality of Haiti's experience as a French slave colony. Although the cultural problem is less acute in Hispanic and Portuguese America, the Iberian traditions of authoritarianism, centralization, and disrespect for the law leave recent experiments with democratic forms fragile in most Latin American countries. That includes Argentina, which Kaplan inexplicably identifies as "authentically democratic," its virtually unbroken history of authoritarian and illicit governments until 1983 notwithstanding.

    Kaplan's argument is further vitiated by his failure to address Francis Fukuyama's thesis that the world is inevitably if slowly moving toward the democratic-capitalist model, a forecast that the experiences of South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, and Turkey tend to corroborate.

    Lawrence E. Harrison


    Among the more remarkable statements made by Robert Kaplan is his claim that the late Sir Isaiah Berlin counts as a political idealist, in contrast to the more realistic (because authoritarian) Hobbes. Among political scientists and philosophers Berlin is deemed a profoundly sober realist, given his antagonism to any "theories" of justice or the good life that claim to abolish conflict and reconcile competing interests because the theorists "know" the ways either of nature or of history. The "idealists" whom Berlin opposed, whether of the right or of the left, naively believed in a final theoretical resolution of "the political problem." But this is evidently not realistic enough for Kaplan: Berlin, unlike Hobbes, did not believe in "historical inevitability," which for Kaplan is the force that often makes democracy a luxury and economics, in its current incarnation as "the global marketplace," the emperor of us all.

    The problem with Kaplan's take on world affairs might be called "a fear of justice." (A fear, I might add, that Berlin himself evinced from time to time.) I am quite willing to admit that democratic regimes can be both unstable and unjust, and that relatively authoritarian ones can be stable, at least for a time, and just, at least to an extent. But it would be hasty to infer from those premises, as Kaplan does, that antidemocratic and unjust regimes are tolerable to the extent that they preserve order and open the door to prosperity. One can always ask "Prosperity for whom?," "Order for whose sake?," and "At what cost?" To pretend that these answers don't matter, that order and equilibrium matter above all in the short term, is to render the notion of justice unintelligible -- to replace it with "effectiveness" and to embody it in what the historian John Ralston Saul has called "corporatism," which is the rule of society by technocratic political and economic elites who have no use for anything that is not quantifiable in the terms of fashionable theory.

    The problems facing democracy are not, as Kaplan suggests, the product of historical forces beyond anyone's control. They are, as always, problems of political will and common decency. Democratic regimes bordering on anarchy, autocratic regimes running "successful" economies, and, indeed, our own decaying "advanced" civilization all lack justice, and the remedy for such lack is, as it has always been, exercising the good judgment to see what needs to be done and mustering the resolve to do it.

    Michael J. Quirk




    Tocqueville's emphasis on a particular kind of national culture as an ingredient of successful democracy is an interesting adjunct to my argument. I describe Argentina as democratic in the context of recent conditions there, at least through the end of Carlos Menem's first presidential term; obviously, Argentina has a long background of authoritarian rule. Francis Fukuyama writes that democratic capitalism may not succeed everywhere, but people will be happiest where it does -- and by "democratic capitalism" he does not mean states without middle classes or functioning institutions that merely hold elections periodically. I agree with Fukuyama that people will be most content in successful democracies. But I do not believe that truly successful democracies will emerge in many places; rather, I observe many regimes that are officially democratic but unofficially illiberal and authoritarian, and the record bears me out (see Fareed Zakaria's cover story in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, titled "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy").

    To say that the problem with anything, let alone democracy, is one of "political will and common decency" is to occupy the comfort zone of sanctimony, because political will and common decency have been potent historically only when allied with some form of self-interest. In truth, self-interest has always been the crucial element in any political future. George Washington grasped this intuitively when he observed that even America's uplifting form of patriotism "will not endure unassisted by Interest." A tenet of realism is that there will never be sufficient political will and common decency to deal adequately with many problems, and so the finest statesmen concern themselves with managing the world as it is, rather than seeking a world that will never be.

    Sir Isaiah Berlin was many things: intellectual historian, humanist, and so on. Categorizing him is thus especially difficult. Yet his humanism and his opposition to authoritarianism stand out. But a realist accepts the world as given, and this world has always borne a heavy imprint of authoritarianism -- even today, after the fall of communism.

    Advice & Consent

    As a scientist and an editor of Victor A. McKusick's medical-genetics database I must too often rush through the published descriptions of genetic diseases and cut to the quick -- verify research data, edit for style, check the spelling of disorders such as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. Seldom have I the time to step back and ponder the bigger picture, to synthesize disparate discoveries into a cohesive story about a complex syndrome such as FOP. Even more unsettling is the distance I often feel from the afflicted: after all, they are the reason for which our biomedical-research enterprise exists.

    "A Few Hundred People Turned to Bone" (February Atlantic) is a rare article indeed. Thomas Maeder both intelligently assembles the perplexing science behind this devastating condition and gives faces and voices to its victims. Indeed, I am reminded by the author that "victims" is a fallacious term. As Maeder shows, those who survive and persevere under such duress have much to teach the rest of us about the true value of life.

    Mark H. Paalman



    The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; Letters; Volume 281, No. 3; pages 10-21.



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