The CIA as a Secret Presidential Army
Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration devoted major resources to the development of a long-distance drone aircraft called Predator, invented by the former chief designer for the Israeli air force, who had emigrated to the United States. In its nose was mounted a Sony digital TV camera, similar to the ones used by news helicopters reporting on freeway traffic or on O.J. Simpson’s fevered ride through Los Angeles. By the turn of the century, Agency experts had also added a Hellfire anti-tank missile to the Predator and tested it on a mock-up of Tarnak Farm in the Nevada desert. This new weapons system made it possible instantly to kill bin Laden if the camera spotted him. Unfortunately for the CIA, on one of its flights from Uzbekistan over Tarnak Farm the Predator photographed as a target a child’s wooden swing. To his credit, Clinton held back on using the Hellfire because of the virtual certainty of killing bystanders, and Tenet, scared of being blamed for another failure, suggested that responsibility for the armed Predator’s use be transferred to the Air Force.
When the new Republican administration came into office, it was deeply uninterested in bin Laden and terrorism even though the outgoing national security adviser, Sandy Berger, warned Condoleezza Rice that it would be George W. Bush’s most serious foreign policy problem. On August 6, 2001, the CIA delivered its daily briefing to Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with the headline “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.,” but the president seemed not to notice. Slightly more than a month later, Osama bin Laden successfully brought off perhaps the most significant example of asymmetric warfare in the history of international relations.
Coll has written a powerful indictment of the CIA’s myopia and incompetence, but he seems to be of two minds. He occasionally indulges in flights of pro-CIA rhetoric, describing it, for example, as a “vast, pulsing, self-perpetuating, highly sensitive network on continuous alert” whose “listening posts were attuned to even the most isolated and dubious evidence of pending attacks” and whose “analysts were continually encouraged to share information as widely as possible among those with appropriate security clearances.” This is nonsense: the early-warning functions of the CIA were upstaged decades ago by covert operations.
Coll acknowledges that every president since Truman, once he discovered that he had a totally secret, financially unaccountable private army at his personal disposal, found its deployment irresistible. But covert operations usually became entangled in hopeless webs of secrecy, and invariably led to more blowback. Richard Clarke argues that “the CIA used its classification rules not only to protect its agents but also to deflect outside scrutiny of its covert operations,” and Peter Tomsen, the former US ambassador to the Afghan resistance during the late 1980s, concludes that “America’s failed policies in Afghanistan flowed in part from the compartmented, top secret isolation in which the CIA always sought to work.” Excessive, bureaucratic secrecy lies at the heart of the Agency’s failures.
Given the Agency’s clear role in causing the disaster of September 11, 2001, what we need today is not a new intelligence czar but an end to the secrecy behind which the CIA hides and avoids accountability for its actions. To this day, in the wake of 9/11 and the false warnings about a threat from Iraq, the CIA continues grossly to distort any and all attempts at a Constitutional foreign policy. Although Coll doesn’t go on to draw the conclusion, I believe the CIA has outlived any Cold War justification it once might have had and should simply be abolished.
Chalmers Johnson’s books include Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, which make up his Blowback Trilogy, and his last book Dismantling the Empire. From 1967 to 1973, Johnson, a TomDispatch regular, served as a consultant to the CIA’s Office of National Estimates.