The cliche of the hour in Washington is “speak truth to power.” That’s what a new CIA director purportedly has to do. President Bush’s nominee, Gen. Michael Hayden, duly pledged at his confirmation hearings to ladle as much truth on power as possible.
The premise of the hot new cliche is what might be called the “lies and the lying liars who tell them” theory of American intelligence: Nothing is wrong with the CIA that can’t be cured by the agency ending its mendacious kowtowing to the Bush administration. Unfortunately, cowardly dishonesty is not what ails the CIA – that could be fixed relatively easily. Instead, the agency is institutionally incapable of providing intelligence on unpleasant places in the world because it has no or few agents there.
According to the book “Cobra II,” the authoritative account of the Iraq War, the CIA didn’t just get the state of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs wrong. It predicted units of the Iraq army would surrender en masse to the U.S. They didn’t. It predicted the Iraqi police force would remain intact. It didn’t. These mistakes meant the postwar phase was harder than expected because there were no Iraqi forces available to impose order, or for other tasks.
The CIA wasn’t misleading about any of these things. It was simply wrong – sincerely and flagrantly wrong. It basically had no one on the ground in Iraq. Liberal critics of the agency long ago decided that covert operations, and the down-and-dirty tactics they often entail, aren’t compatible with the values of an open democratic society. So the CIA shriveled into a defensive crouch from which it has never emerged.
In an instance of institutional Stockholm syndrome, over time the agency adopted the attitudes of its critics. No power center in Washington, outside of the Democratic congressional caucus, is as hostile to Bush’s aggressive pursuit of the War on Terror – secret prisons, forceful interrogations, etc. – as the CIA bureaucracy. This is the reason liberal Democrats now demand independence for the CIA, which would have been inconceivable coming from the left 30 years ago. Then, the CIA had to be reined in; now it’s safely kinder and gentler.
Actually, the CIA needs more political control rather than less, to keep it from being a rogue, inside-the-Beltway operator free to pursue its own policy preferences. No one elected these people. As it is, the agency could hardly be more independent if it adopted its own national flag and declared its headquarters at Langley as sovereign foreign territory.
If you don’t have human intelligence of the sort the CIA once provided, you had better have signals intelligence of the sort that Michael Hayden’s National Security Agency gathers with its controversial phone-surveillance and data-mining programs. Democrats aren’t comfortable with that either. Oddly, our country’s domestic statists tend to be national-security libertarians. They want more regulation, taxation and spending – i.e., more state power – in every instance, unless it is an area involving protecting us from our enemies. Then, they suddenly think the government that governs least governs best.
Why this should be so is a deep question to be taken up by political philosophers (or perhaps psychologists), but it doesn’t strike most people as a sensible ordering of priorities. You can’t “connect the dots,” without dots to connect. And you find them only through surveillance, data-mining, interrogation and other methods disdained by Democrats. They are effectively anti-dot – at least until there is another attack, at which time they will bray that we should have had more dots, neatly connected.
As for the CIA, the agency’s performance won’t fundamentally improve until its institutional culture changes to be more risk-taking, in a way the risk-averse, second-guessing Congress can’t abide. That’s why congressional intelligence reform always involves a pointless shifting of bureaucratic boxes. Gen. Hayden could have told the senators as much at his hearing, but that would have been speaking too much truth to power.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.