Thursday, April 30, 2009

The CIA is looking for detectives

There are some books that will distress nearly everyone that reads them. Tim Weiner's history of the CIA, the Legacy of Ashes is one such book. If he doesn't get you with the brutal effects of the coups in Guatemala, Chile or in Africa, he will get you with a vision of a country that has lacked an effective means of providing intelligence to guide decision-making.

Weiner's main argument is that an early focus on covert action, which was often bungled by poorly trained personnel or quickly compromised by the more experienced intelligence services of the Soviet Union, set the CIA on the wrong course, which was to collect intelligence and provide policy makers with an accurate understanding of what was happening in the world. The inability to provide clear assessments led to mistakes in Vietnam, relations with Russia and China, and perhaps most disastrously, the assessment of Iraq and the cultural support for covert action led to a focus on coups which distracted the Agency and created problems down the line.

Weiner takes a historical narrative approach, which means this is a quick, exciting (and equally depressing) read. You see the transition from the World War 2 OSS, focused on fighting in Europe and East Asia to an agency that expanded world-wide, with little to no oversight. The stories are detailed and loaded with attributed quotes from those who served in the CIA or worked with it.

This narrative focus on the CIA hides some of the important reasons for the problems the CIA faces. The problems are often described in terms of personalities instead of the organizational or systemic reasons for failure. I would argue that many of the CIA's problems and the failures in assessment, at least, were driven by systemic issues related to the policy makers use of intelligence and the war for control between the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence.

Readers less familiar with the intelligence community might miss some of the organizational issues, such as the problem of managing collection and analysis in the same Agency and the problems of managing the intelligence community. The book could have used an overview of the entire community. With that context, the shift to technical (signals, imagery and so on) collection versus human collection of intelligence that took place helps explain the limited funding and collapse of morale at the Agency.

So while this book will not provide you with all you need to know about the Agency, it is an excellent introduction for someone who doesn't want to read the specialist literature. If after reading this, you want to begin to explore some solutions to the problems Weiner raises, you should read William Odom's Fixing Intelligence, a pleasingly iconoclastic review of the entire intelligence community.

No comments: