Maybe the CIA is a Bad Idea

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith for the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Public Domain)
Photo by Carol M. Highsmith for the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Public Domain)

That’s the thought that I had as I read this article from the Washington Post: ‘Eyewash’: How the CIA deceives its own workforce about operations. Prior to this article, I was already something of a skeptic. For one thing, the CIA doesn’t seem to have actually done us a lot of good, historically speaking. High-ranking double agents like Kim Philby (actually in British intelligence) meant that in the early days of the Cold War the only limits to Soviet supremacy were their own suspicions. When it comes to the CIA’s biggest operations, the CIA either bungled them horribly (like the Bay of Pigs Invasion), succeeded only to bring serious blowback on the United States (like Operation Ajax) or–perhaps worst of all–never bothered to show up at all (as with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956). Then there’s the plain old villainy of Project MKUltra. Altogether, this is not a track record to inspire either trust or gratitude.

One of the problems that run through these examples is the fact that the CIA brings intelligence and operations under one roof. As I understand it, this is considered a bad idea by most national intelligence agencies. It is why, for example, the British have both MI5 (operations) and MI6 (intelligence). The main problem with merging the two functions into a single organization is that it creates a conflict of interest: operations folks have the ability to interfere in research gathering and analysis to support their plans (ahead of an operation) or obscure mistakes (after an operation).

The idea of splitting the CIA might seem crazy. Don’t we have enough intelligence agencies already? Why yes, we do. We have an “intelligence community” of 17 distinct federal agencies that are supposed to coordinate to handle national intelligence. But note that that’s all intelligence. We could certainly use some streamlining and consolidation of intelligence agencies, but merging intelligence and operations is precisely the wrong kind of merger.

The one thing that has kept me sort of on-the-fence about the CIA is the notion of trust. I don’t think of myself as an overly trusting person, but I do think of myself as fairly pragmatic. As a conservative, I have the tragic vision of the world. That’s the idea that the world, in its natural state, is full of limited resources and conflicting incentives. It doesn’t go as far as Hobbesian paranoia, but it is a view of the world where most choices require tradeoffs and where conflict with other players is something that has to be managed and navigated but cannot be entirely avoided. George Orwell’s statement resonates with me: “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence upon those who would do us harm.” A nation state needs an intelligence apparatus and it needs some covert operational capabilities as well.

Most importantly, the declassification of early Cold War era documents served to me as a kind of delayed verification of what the CIA was up to. Even though declassifying something decades after the fact may not provide the kind of immediate public scrutiny that is important for other government action, it seemed like a good balance of the need for secrecy with the need for public oversight. After all, the incentives of a typical member of an organization are to not only look after their own needs and desires but–to at least some degree–to those of the organization they belong to. This is where concepts like loyalty and legacy and prestige all come into play. If CIA leadership knows that eventually the public will find out what they have done, I think that’s a useful incentive.

And so we come back to the WaPo article:

Senior CIA officials have for years intentionally deceived parts of the agency workforce by transmitting internal memos that contain false information about operations and sources overseas, according to current and former U.S. officials who said the practice is known by the term “eyewash.”

OK, so that sounds kind of bad, but you could see how that would actually be an important counter-intelligence strategy. If you want to know where a leak is, then you give different information to different suspects and you see what gets turned over to the other side. And obviously if you can dole out fake information this makes it easier to come up with different “facts” to check against more leaks and it also prevents the betrayal of real operatives and real operations. You could see how it could be abused, but also how the CIA would need the flexibility to do this from time to time. But then I read this:

Officials said there is no clear mechanism for labeling eyewash cables or distinguishing them from legitimate records being examined by the CIA’s inspector general, turned over to Congress or declassified for historians.

And that’s when I threw my arms up in the air and thought to myself, “We probably need to dismantle this entire institution and start over.”

If the false information is not documented somewhere, then the one and only reason I had for hoping the CIA could be kept in check–eventual declassification, scrutiny, and some form of (perhaps watered down) accountability–is gone. If the leadership of the CIA gets to release false information in official documents without any distinction between the lies and the truth, then the potential of abuse seems basically limitless and the opportunity for accountability (even indirect accountability through ideas like reputation and legacy) disappears.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of honor and about the important of principle not just in an idealized world, but in a very practical one. I think our country has made a fatal mistake in our abandonment of these concepts in favor of real politik. The amount of goodwill that the United States has squandered all around the world is incalculable, and it’s not just about feelings. It has real impacts on our safety, our foreign policy, our economy, and global stability. If we had traded that for real and tangible benefits, you could make the case that it’s a tough but necessary tradeoff, but I just don’t believe we can rely on that anymore.

If the CIA has license to lie to the people of the United States indefinitely and without recourse, then in what conceivable sense does it remain an arm of government by, for, and of the people?

Alternatives to Torture

Intelligence agencies are not filled with moral philosophers by any means. Cheating and deception kind of go with the territory. The recent report on the CIA’s use of terror has raised two questions. First, is torture moral. Second, is torture effective. The first question is very easy to answer. Torture is not moral. The second question, to my mind, has more far-reaching implications. Basically, if torture is not effective, then one has cruelly abused another human being for nothing. It can be defended neither on moral grounds, nor on those derived from expediency. If a deed is ugly but must be done, that is one thing. If it is ugly and pointless, then it is completely reprehensible. Ultimately, the goal of an interrogation is to gain correct and useful information. This might seem counterintuitive when dealing with terrorists, but treating the person under interrogation softly and kindly will actually lead to better results than anything extracted by torture. There is an interesting article on two of the most successful interrogators of the Second World War. Hans Joachim Scharff and Sherwood Ford Moran came from different backgrounds, were on different sides, and faced different conditions for interrogation. Neither ever resorted to torture or other forms of coercion. Scharff created an easy-going atmosphere for captured aviators when they were expecting to be brutally tortured. Scharff cared for his prisoners’ well-being, and upheld an illusion of knowing everything, so none of his prisoners thought that they had given away important information even when they had. Moran, too, genuinely cared for the well-being of his Japanese prisoners. If they were hungry, they got fed well. If they were wounded, they got good medical treatment. Because of this, they saw Moran as someone who cared, rather than a personal enemy Moran needed to be direct with his questions because he was on the front lines, but having lived in Japan as a missionary, he knew Japan and the Japanese intimately. When he couldn’t make a prisoner relax enough to talk, he would use the Japanese concept of honor to make the prisoner feel ashamed for his behavior. Both Scharff and Moran were able to piece together the big picture out of seemingly small, inconsequential details. Modern interrogators will face different circumstances, but employing a similar approach they can get good results without the need for torture. Treat your prisoners as human beings, understand their culture and language, and get them talking. Simple enough, really.

Learning from history what works—and what does not—can make a world of difference in terms of future interrogation practices.

G. I. Joe: Devil Eyes

My favorite part of the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is when the mage, Mr. Norrell, is recruited as part of the war effort against Napoleon. The plan is to terrify Napoleon by troubling him with nightmares. The plan fails because the bookish old antiquarian is useless at imagining horrors. The worst he can come up with is a captain of dragoons hiding in Napoleon’s wardrobe.

Truth, however, is stranger than fiction.

As part of the effort to rid Bin Laden of a support base, the CIA commissioned a demonic action figure of Bin Laden. Unsuspecting parents in, say, Karachi, would buy their children an innocent looking Bin Laden toy, and after bringing it home the action figure would react to the heat, its original face being replaced by a demonic, red one. To make things even better, this mix between Get Smart and Team America was designed by Donald Levine, one of the creators of G.I. Joe. He designed the toy, and secretly manufactured it in China. Thus Habsboro’s role in the War against Terror. I personally can’t picture anyone being spooked by this toy, not even in regions were belief in devils, demons, and jinns is widespread, and the CIA seems to agree. They shelved the toy, but one source says that hundreds of toys actually made their way to Pakistan.

Who knows, there might be hope for a collector’s item after all.