Ben Tarnoff / San Francisco Chronicle Book Review – 2008-09-09 22:00:54
The CIA and the Culture of Failure:
U.S. Intelligence From the End of the Cold War to the Invasion of Iraq
By John Diamond (Stanford University Press; 536 pages; $29.95)
(September 7, 2008) — When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the CIA lost the adversary that, for the previous half century, had provided its reason for existing. Founded in 1947 to spy on the Soviets and their allies, the CIA spent most of its history secretly fighting an enemy the United States couldn’t risk confronting directly.
When this opponent suddenly vanished, a new, more spectral set of threats emerged — terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, ethnic strife — that made many at Langley nostalgic for the Cold War. The comforting calculus of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry was exchanged for “a forest full of snakes,” in the words of James Woolsey, the agency’s director from 1993 to 1995. The lights had gone out, and it would take Langley a long time to learn to see in the dark.
The post-Cold War period was exceptionally difficult for the CIA, an era of budget cuts, greater congressional oversight and a series of humiliating intelligence failures. In The CIA and the Culture of Failure: US Intelligence From the End of the Cold War to the Invasion of Iraq, John Diamond reviews the agency’s missteps in the decade and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There are plenty to choose from, including a medicine factory in Sudan being flattened by 13 cruise missiles because the CIA mistakes it for a chemical weapons plant or the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade being leveled by a satellite-guided bomb because an analyst using an outdated map of the city thinks it’s a Serbian target.
Other mistakes are more catastrophic, such as the failure to identify Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer who worked for the KGB for nine years before being caught. One day in 1985, after draining a few double vodkas at a hotel in downtown Washington, Ames walked into the Soviet Embassy and volunteered to become a spy for the KGB. By the time the FBI arrested him standing next to his expensive sports car, Ames had made $2.5 million providing the Soviets with bags full of secret documents detailing CIA activities.
According to one estimate cited by Diamond, Ames cost the agency 30 agents and compromised more than a hundred operations.
Long after the initial damage has been done, these failures linger in the CIA’s institutional memory, generating ripples that are felt for years. As Diamond demonstrates, analysts often overcompensate for past mistakes, tailoring their reports in the hopes of avoiding future embarrassment.
In 1990 and 1991, the CIA first failed to predict Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and then overestimated his ability to hold it. When Iraqi troops took Kuwait and U.S.-led forces expelled them six months later with minimal casualties, the agency came under attack, especially from lawmakers who opposed the war on the basis of what the CIA had told them to expect.
By the time President Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, the CIA, eager to redeem itself, predicted a swift victory and gave little thought to the possibility of an insurgency, much less a civil war. Under George Tenet’s direction, the CIA stitched a patchwork of threadbare intelligence into a rationale for doing something unprecedented in American history: going to war without provocation to pre-empt a hypothetical attack.
To call Iraq an intelligence failure is misleading. From the Bush administration’s point of view, the CIA did exactly what it was supposed to do: The White House early on resolved to remove Hussein by force; what it needed, and what the agency delivered, was a sales pitch.
One of the features of the post-Cold War era noted by Diamond is that intelligence becomes both more important – in thwarting a terrorist plot, for instance, or justifying a war – and harder to obtain. Infiltrating the leaky Soviet bureaucracy was a relatively straightforward task; rogue states such as Hussein’s Iraq and dispersed terror networks like al Qaeda have proved harder to penetrate.
Diamond often shows Langley frantically combing haystacks of static for needles of meaningful intelligence, desperate to discern an accurate picture of events. The messiness of the raw information piped into CIA headquarters from its sources around the world, Diamond explains, tends to make intelligence reporting either too simple or too complex: Agency officers either overstate their case, imposing a coherent pattern where none exists, or subject their readers to a dizzying litany of undigested facts.
Unfortunately, like an analyst inundated with dispatches from the field, Diamond often seems at a loss for how to structure his material. His book is rigorously researched but, in its zeal to exhume every detail of the agency’s recent past, wobbles under the weight of the accumulated minutiae. He rarely trades his tightly focused lens for a more general view, losing an opportunity to reach a wider audience at a time when the inner workings of intelligence has serious consequences for the lives of ordinary people, whether as potential victims of another terrorist attack or future combatants in another war.
Ben Tarnoff is an assistant editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. E-mail him at email@example.com.
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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