Abolish The CIA?

Abolish The CIA? Although it’s not a new idea, Christopher Hitchens has seemingly united the blogosphere with his suggestion the it’s time to abolish the CIA and start over.

His argument, in a nutshell, is that the Agency is simultaneously incompetent and venal. Its turnaround on the Iran weapons program is just the latest instance of it proving spectacularly wrong and, worse yet (to Hitchens’ thinking) they’ve now given the incorrect impression that Iran is no longer in the market for nukes. Further, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it sees itself as above the law, with numerous instances of attempting to undermine the sitting administration through skulduggery and now, in destroying interrogation tapes, engaging in “mutiny and treason.” (The treason charge is simply laughable and is disappointing coming from a word smith such as Hitchens.)

Hitchens figures that there have been too many attempts to fix this via reform, so we should just “shut the whole thing down and start again.”

Most of the blogs commenting on this thus far that have been aggregated at Memorandum are on board.

  • Ed Morrissey hopes the CIA has managed to unite the White House and Congress so that we can finally streamline intelligence, preferably under “the non-partisan world of the Pentagon.” Given the freshness of Don Rumsfeld’s tenure, though, that seems incredibly far-fetched; indeed, further consolidation under the Director of National Intelligence would seem the more likely outcome.
  • Bruce McQuain focuses on the CIA’s penchant for cooking the books to suit its own interests — and conduct an internecine “war against DoD with no regard for ‘collateral damage'” — and thinks we need to build an “intelligence gathering agency which supports the best interests of the United States instead of subverting it.”
  • Victor Davis Hanson sees the CIA as a “Three-Letter Menace,” citing the adventures of Joe Wilson and Michael Scheuer as prime examples.
  • AJ Strata doesn’t much care about destroyed tapes but thinks providing a lifeline to Iran’s mullahs inexcusable. He does agree with the conclusion, though: “This cold war relic seems to have become too dysfunctional and laden with career egos willing to play political games as opposed to protect the nation from harm.”
  • The lone dissenter, Cernig, believes it’s “not a good idea to entirely dismantle the main civilian intelligence gathering arm of the USA in favor of purely military intel” and dismisses the idea that the CIA is cooking the books on Iran.

I’ve long thought that a massive overhaul of our intelligence apparatus made sense, with taking counter-terrorism out of the hands of the FBI and separating the analysis and operations functions of CIA as the major components. But I’m not sure breaking up the CIA would have much impact on either the politicization or efficacy of intelligence.

For one thing, as a practical matter, we’re just going re-hire most of the same people and issue them new badges and stationery. We’re not going to waste billions of dollars and years and years of training, especially while in the midst of a multi-front war. Plus, since our security screening process is broken, anyone with a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance would be snapped up in an instant.

Moreover, while it’s easy to blame the CIA for all the problems, the fact of the matter is that Congress has done an abysmal job over the years of providing oversight. To the extent that CIA is a rogue agency that feels immune from consequences, it’s because there have been few consequences for failure. Indeed, we already know that the recent torture tape destruction scandal came with the foreknowledge of the leadership of the congressional intelligence committees, who did precisely nothing.

Correction: Re-edited the blog summary slightly to more accurately summarize Cernig’s argument.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Congress, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Breaking up the CIA into analysis and operations functions has been an idea I’ve supported for 30 years. And been ridiculed for.

  2. Cernig says:

    James, I’m not “on board”, in fact I explicity wrote that it is a “ludicrous idea”. And my comment on neocon allegations that the CIA was cooking the books pointed to the blatantly false congressional report from Sept.’06 on Iran’s nuclear program written by Frederick Fleitz, who had been a special assistant to John R. Bolton. The reason the neocons are so sure the NIE was politicized is because it’s what they already had done and they cannot conceive of anyone being less underhanded and dishonest than they themselves are.

    Newsweek’s Evan Thomas today writes:

    Predicting the future is very hard to do. Yes, it’s true that the CIA failed to predict the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, or the Soviets’ getting the bomb in 1949, or Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But rival national intelligence services have not done much better. Even Israel’s legendary Mossad missed the outbreak of the Arab-Isreali war in 1973. A veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service once looked back on a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century and remarked, “In all that time I was wrong only twice: World War One and World War Two.” It is particularly difficult to penetrate dictatorships that live by secrets and kill spies at the slightest hint of betrayal. The CIA couldn’t effectively penetrate Stalinist Russia, and it’s no surprise that the agency cannot truly crack Islamist Iran.

    No-one suggested scrapping Mossad or MI5. I agree with you – reform is still what’s needed, not demolition. But I think partisan White House driven reform (from either party) won’t do the job. Time for another blue ribbon nonpartisan commission, with actual teeth this time, perhaps?

    Regards, C

  3. James Joyner says:


    Sorry — an editing lapse. I was going to go back and clean yours up and didn’t.

    I didn’t read you as saying abolition was ludicrous so much as Hitchen’s idea that the CIA was “politicizing the recent Iran NIE with an anti-war bias.”

  4. just me says:

    I could almost get on board, but in the end I don’t think it would work, and I think you point that they would just rehire the same people is one reason why.

    I think revamping the organization might be a good idea, but revamping it would be a waste of time and money if there wasn’t a clear plan in place as to how to do it.

    I do think in a lot of ways the CIA sees itself as being above the law, and that doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

  5. John425 says:

    Langeley, VA is too close to D.C. Perhaps after a house-cleaning or reform, it should be moved. Say to– Texas or Kansas.

  6. Anderson says:

    For one thing, as a practical matter, we’re just going re-hire most of the same people and issue them new badges and stationery.

    This sounds right to me. Still, we could send tha analysts to State and the operatives to Defense.

    I’m not sure whether splitting off the two is a good idea, but de facto, they’re already split within CIA. Ideally, we’d have an agency where the two were integrated, so that the ops people were better informed and the analysts had a better grasp on where the intel was coming from.

  7. anjin-san says:

    No doubt the CIA/US intel in general could use some work. That being said, this sounds like an attempt to place blame for the failures of Bush & neocons on someone other then Bush & neocons. The buck stops anywhere but on the desk of this President…

  8. Cernig says:

    Thanks for the correction, James. I admit my grammar was tortuous. My argument would be that the US has enough problems with always reaching for the military hammer to pound every nail – something you’ve said yourself on occasion – and those would only be compounded if all intel about the nature of the nails was coming from military analysts.

    Regards, C

  9. legion says:

    Well, even assuming all the criticisms of the current CIA are correct (and I by no means admit that), they all seem to be criticisms that could be leveled at any bureaucratic organization that’s been around for several decades – what would prevent the same problems from cropping up in any replacement organization?

    And I’d like to preemptively target one particular solution – people (like Ed Morrissey and Don Rumsfeld) who think everything can be solved by putting the entire intel schmear under the Pentagon have an embarrassingly narrow and juvenile understanding of the process and basic purpose of national-level intelligence to begin with. That dog just won’t hunt.

  10. Bob says:

    I don’t think putting it all under Pentagon is a good idea. Actually its really really bad. But a complete overhaul is absolutely required. As a nation we have never been serious about intelligence. We always count on the oceans to keep the wolves away. I’d suggest we remodel based upon the Israeli model. They have a public intel org and several shadow orgs. They are serious about gathering and using intel and we are not. We swing wildly to one extreme (“this is all so dirty”) and then to other (“by whatever means required”). Plus we have an American fixation on technology as saviour. We need to acknowledge that our hands will get dirty and will need to deal with unsavory types.

    And the one other reform needed is to have a couple of public lynchings for leaking to press. Spies operate in shadows and we absolutely need to shut down the leaks.

  11. glasnost says:

    It’s a perfect political storm for the CIA that bears no relation to sane reality or sound policy analysis. Two important things are being conflated, and then inverted:

    The CIA’s genuine ethical lapses – waterboarding, tape destruction – as well as competence lapses – the Iraq NIE – which have earned it the ire of the left. Most of these are the result of pressure from the White House and Pentagon, or else were actually mandated by these agencies.

    The Second thing is the NIE on Iran, and the CIA’s **entirely accurate** pessimistic portrayals of Iraq at certain points. These have been – and still are- being used by right-wingers in an all-out effort to destroy the CIA – not for the things they got wrong, but for what they got right – for attempting to impose a degree of reality on a circus freakshow at Rumsfield’s Pentagon.

    The simplistic idiots you cite – and you as well fail to highlight this to your shame, James – fail to notice that the DOD already commands the vast majority of the staff and budgets of the intelligence community. The Pentagon signed off on this NIE. Nay, said NIE is largely the product of the Pentagon itself – under the newly sane leadership of Bob Gates.

    The right has the CIA painted as an enemy of blind paranoia and mindless aggression as a foreign policy. To the extent that said factors lead one to want to lie about what’s going on in the world, that’s a sign that the CIA is doing its job, and doing it well.

    It’s the idiot right-wingers who are analytically broken.

  12. Tlaloc says:

    So what you are saying is that the Hitchster can still afford hooch?

    Seriously why does anyone take hitchens seriously at this point? Has he not embarrassed himself nationally enough times quite yet? Is the surly drunken lout routine that funny?

    The guy can be a decent writer but he’s a certified idiot when it comes to evaluating reality. He’s been wrong time and again at a rate that slightly exceeds the current men in the oval office.

    Electrons need to be much cheaper before anymore get wasted on him.

  13. Christopher says:

    Why don’t we abolish bloggers who give credence to such ridiculous ideas?

  14. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Good Tlaloc, if you disagree with someone, attack his character. If you do not think the Iranians are planning to build nuclear weapons you are not paying attention. Most foreign intelligence services think the NIE estimate is wrong. The CIA is full of people who put their politics ahead of the nation. Politics has no place in intelligence.

  15. Hal says:

    Isn’t the bulk of intelligence operations – certainly from a budgetary expenditure POV already under defense? Didn’t this disparity get even more so under Rumsfeld? I thought the CIA was really just an umbrella like org that kind of funneled the intel into one place where it could be managed – somewhat – and fed into digested form to the executive branch head.

    So, getting rid of the CIA would pretty much have no effect, as far as I can see.

    Also, gotta echo Tlaloc. Hitchens is well beyond his expiration date and has been blatantly wrong about so much for so long it’s hard to believe anyone thinks his drunken rants are worth the very skilled prose he uses to put them together. Amazing that anyone listens to him at all. But I guess there’s still that 28% crowd who think Bush is doing a fantastic job and moving the country in the right direction. Does seem like a pretty niche market, though. And quite looney, I might add.

  16. Tom P says:

    Back to the original post: I notice, James, that you have given Bush & Co. a pass on this whole affair. While I am equally disgusted with congress (Reps AND Dems) over their lack of oversight on this and many other matters, let us remember

    To whom does the CIA report? They are the creatures of the Administrative branch and I for one do not beleive for a second that the CIA told Congress they were destroying the tapes, but didn’t bother notifying the President.