Clueless in Langley

For two decades, the CIA has been making excuses for why it has failed to tackle terrorism. Can a spy agency rooted in the Cold War adapt to a changed world?

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A few years back, a callow new recruit to the CIA, aspiring to be a paramilitary officer, asked a grizzled veteran of clandestine operations if he could accompany him on an undercover mission to the Middle East. He was looking for a mentor, someone to give him an advanced course in the tradecraft of espionage. The old pro, then in his late 50s, looked at the wide-eyed case officer and asked him to smile. The younger agent was puzzled, but obliged, revealing what the more seasoned operative estimated to be some $20,000 worth of American orthodontics.

“Every time you open your mouth,” he chided the young man, “you will be telling people where you come from. You can make that trip, but we will have to knock out a few teeth and things like that.” The recruit’s ardor for the assignment instantly paled. And so ended a partnership even before it began.

It was a brief exchange, but one revealing of innumerable frailties in the CIA’s campaign against terrorism. It may be unfair to suggest that the CIA was negligent in failing to foil the September 11 terrorist attacks, and even the agency’s harshest critics must recognize the numbing obstacles involved in penetrating terrorist cells. But it is not unfair to ask whether the vaunted Central Intelligence Agency is up to the task of fighting terrorism.

Like the young recruit who hoped to accompany the veteran into the field, the CIA is earnest enough but arguably so ill equipped and ill suited that nothing short of fundamentally altering its identity-the bureaucratic equivalent of knocking out its front teeth-would suffice. In short, it is time to consider either fundamentally overhauling the agency or getting rid of it entirely. We quite simply may no longer be able to entrust it with the vital mission of collecting and analyzing the intelligence upon which the nation’s survival could depend.

In some ways it may be too late for the CIA to adapt to the current crisis. Locked in a past wholly defined by the Cold War, the agency has struggled to shed its historical roots and to become something that it is not and never has been-agile, prescient, and proactive. Already past are many of the opportunities to make the sort of long-term investments in on-the-ground intelligence that might have helped thwart today’s terrorists. It is only a failed intelligence community that invokes the defense of hindsight being 20/20.

Back in 1947, when the CIA was created out of the remnants of World War II’s Office of Strategic Services, its mission was to fight Communism. Its enemies were Moscow and Beijing. Decade after decade, the agency viewed every conflict in much the same light, as one played out between superpower proxies. Today it remains enslaved to this Cold War legacy, with both its structure and vision predicated on a world divided into states and spheres of influence. Notwithstanding its recognition of transnational issues-terrorism, weapons proliferation, drugs, crime-many of its officials and operatives continue to view the world even as a child views a grade-school globe with neatly drawn borders. They speak of state-sponsored terrorism, unable to imagine terrorists without such support. Only now are they discovering that it may be the terrorists who support the state, and that states harboring terrorists may themselves be held hostage by fear of extremism. Agency analysts who comb through news reports, government documents, and other open-source intelligence on individual nations can ascertain the gross national product of Yemen or the wheat crop in Ukraine, but they will not crack the nut of terrorism.

To its credit, the CIA has tried to overcome its bureaucratic and hierarchical burdens. As far back as 1986 it created the Counter-Terrorism Center, a major effort to try to break out of the Cold War mold. Composed of representatives from numerous organizations, including the CIA, the Pentagon, and the FBI, the center represents the first time the agency has allowed analysts, operatives, and techies to work side by side. But the unit has been riddled with conflict, and it remains a component, albeit an ever-growing one, within the antiquated structure that predates it.

In other ways, too, the Cold War mind-set hampers the CIA’s efforts to pursue and prosecute terrorists. Too many case officers are still being placed under cover at embassies around the world, a system reminiscent of the days when the burglars and break-in artists of Langley stole secrets from foreign offices in “black bag” jobs. But few terrorists have their encampments in big cities, much less capitals–an obvious problem that remains uncorrected, in part, because case officers are reluctant to move out of the cities and into the bush. The ranks of covert operatives are filled with erudite young men and women who enlist to experience foreign cultures. Eating dust and lying low in godforsaken outposts is not high on anyone’s list.

Forty years ago, few agents gave serious thought to personal comforts. But such veterans are largely gone. When the Cold War ended, so did much of Langley’s sense of purpose. Thousands of seasoned operatives and analysts retired, and with them went a deep reservoir of experience and commitment. The old boys may have a rose-tinted view of the past, but it does seem to many of them that today’s recruits are as concerned with retirement and health benefits as with the agency’s mission. On September 26, President Bush paid a visit to Langley and commiserated with agency employees for the long hours they had endured. He spoke of “sleeping on the floor, eating cold pizza,” as if that were the ultimate sacrifice. In the caves of Afghanistan, such conditions would be a step up.

No one seemed more blindsided by the events of September 11 than the CIA. Until that day, the agency had been strutting its stuff, suggesting in background briefings and off-the-record comments that the terrorists were on the run. It cited a steady decline in attacks, interpreting the prolonged silence as evidence of capitulation or fear, seemingly oblivious to the idea that the silence was that of a plan coming together.

An agency that lives in the realm of deception and secrecy had indulged in a campaign to enhance its public image. It had a longtime veteran of covert operations, Chase Brandon, assigned to be a liaison with Hollywood, to consult on the scripts of prime-time programs such as The Agency and 24. Authors like Tom Clancy who portray the CIA in a favorable light were given wide access, while more critical observers found the door still closed.

All the while, the agency was not only hemorrhaging experienced operatives, but increasingly coming to rely on technology as the principal element of espionage. Human intelligence–the network of spies on the ground–was allowed to degrade steadily. To the fore came satellite imagery and the National Security Agency’s capacity to intercept communications. High-tech spying had proved effective against foreign states during the Cold War. Against terrorism, its value was dubious at best.

Overhead satellites are fine for tracking troop movements, but a fast-moving cell of terrorists, or a training camp consisting of little more than tents and rifle ranges, can easily elude an eye in the sky. Reading a license plate from outer space is great in securing funds for more “birds,” but it is worthless without a footprint on the ground.

And those who monitor intercepts can easily be outwitted. Bin Laden and others appear to have used the United States’ eavesdropping capacity to send intelligence agencies on wild-goose chases. In addition, the crushing volume of data often precludes analysts’ ability to find the key messages until after the fact–after the attack. Such technology may be useful as a tool in gathering evidence, but it comes as little comfort to the bereaved.

In the end, the most productive intelligence on terrorists will come from human spies on the ground. But here, too, the CIA has been woefully slow off the mark. It has an abundance of case officers fluent in French and German and Russian, but, as we now know all too well, few who speak Arabic, Farsi, or Pashto and could slip unnoticed into a street in the Middle East. For two decades it has been clear that this is a region from which much trouble comes, yet the agency failed to aggressively train and prepare a cadre of covert operatives to penetrate the ranks of radical Islamic terrorists. Infiltrating terrorist cells is as difficult as it is dangerous–but that is the mission of an intelligence agency.

For decades the CIA has been wrestling with its own demons. Publicly, it has made excuses, blaming others for its inability to frustrate the plans of terrorists. In 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed. Six months later, a car bomb brought down the Marine barracks there. A government commission later blamed the CIA for failing to sniff out the plan in advance. But former CIA director Stansfield Turner defended the agency in his book Secrecy and Democracy.

“It was unreasonable,” he wrote, “to expect the CIA to have anticipated this particular threat far enough in advance to have placed an agent in every terrorist organization. Spies cannot be recruited overnight. A suitable candidate must be identified, his friendship and trust nurtured over weeks and months until he is willing to work for us, an opportunity found to insert him in the organization we want to learn about, and enough time allowed him to gain the trust of that organization. In Lebanon the CIA would have had to elevate terrorism to a very high priority perhaps a year or more before the actual attack.”

Exactly. Turner sounds as though the idea of planning for something a year or more in advance is unreasonable. As the September 11 attacks made clear, terrorists do not find it unreasonable. American intelligence still operates on a kind of ATM mentality: put the card in and get the information out. It would seem that one edge the terrorists possess is that of patience.

No sooner had the smoke cleared on September 11 than the CIA began to argue that it couldn’t do its job because there were too many morals and too few dollars. Officials once more chafed against the ban on assassinations of foreign leaders, first issued by President Gerald Ford in 1976, as if it had somehow encumbered the intelligence community’s work. The fact is that the CIA was never much good at killing foreign leaders, and even before the ban it failed, and failed miserably. The individual who has been targeted by the agency more often, and in more ways, than any other remains the longest-serving sovereign in the hemisphere: Fidel Castro.

There is also not a small amount of hypocrisy in suggesting that U.S. actions have been constrained by any such ban. No one really doubted who the target was when Air Force planes bombed Muammar Gadhafi’s personal bunker in 1986, killing his adopted daughter, or when George Bush Sr. sent missiles raining down on Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Osama bin Laden was still alive three years after being implicated in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies, not because of any ban on assassinations, but because the CIA had no idea where he was.

Then there’s the agency complaint about the Torricelli principle (named for Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who introduced it in 1995), which prohibits field agents from bringing drug dealers, murderers, and other miscreants on board without authorization from Langley. Granted, espionage is not for Boy Scouts: “If you’re going after the rats, you have to get down in the sewers,” as one former operative puts it. But have we forgotten so quickly the lowlifes, from rogue contras to the likes of Noriega, who were used and supported by the CIA in Central America? Perhaps field agents have been reluctant to put forward the names of some sordid candidates, but that may not be a bad thing: Historically, the CIA’s lack of discretion in choosing its allies has surely caused as many problems as it has solved.

Finally, of course, the CIA blames the press, members of Congress, and anyone who dares to speak of that which it has stamped secret. In the fall of 2000, the agency’s allies in Congress attempted to enact a secrecy law that would have sent anyone who disclosed a classified document to prison for three years. (Think Pentagon Papers.) The proposal passed without hearings or debate and might well have won President Clinton’s signature had it not been for a coalition of influential journalists who lobbied against it.

More recently the administration, with support from the CIA, has attempted to severely limit the number of members of congressional intelligence committees who are cleared for classified briefings. What infuriated officials was the leaked warning, first disclosed in a congressional briefing, that there was a 100 percent chance of further terrorist attacks against the United States, probably focusing on infrastructure like nuclear power plants or gas pipelines. Was that not something the public had a right to know?

Despite protestations to the contrary, what galls the CIA most is not that leaks damage national security, but rather that it can’t keep its secrets secret. Adept at leaks that are self-serving, it brands as traitorous only those that contradict the party line. A federal agency known as the Information Security Oversight Office estimates that the CIA created some 3.5 million new secrets in 1999. If only one of them could have thwarted the September 11 attack.

To justify such obsessive secrecy, the agency often invokes the need to protect its “sources and methods”–the who and how of intelligence gathering. At headquarters in Langley, a volume known as the “Book of Honor” lists covert operatives killed in the line of duty. In half the cases, the operatives’ identities are concealed, marked by anonymous stars. One of those stars represents Barbara Robbins, a 21-year-old CIA secretary killed by a car bomb in Saigon in 1965. The agency has suppressed her name despite appeals from her father to recognize her. It is a strange organization that can conceal the identity of a dead secretary for 35 years but cannot protect the lives of foreign agents imperiled by a CIA mole like Aldrich Ames. McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser, once observed, “If we guard our toothbrushes and diamonds with equal zeal, we will lose fewer toothbrushes and more diamonds.” Small wonder John Deutch, who served as CIA director for two years in the Clinton administration, showed such contempt for secrecy as to view ultrasensitive materials on his unsecured home computer.

The reality is that most agency secrets have less to do with genuine national security than with the expediencies of a bureaucracy. Marking a memo “Secret” gives it a certain cachet, makes it worthy of attention in the blizzard of paperwork that consumes government offices. No such stamp and it’s dispatched to oblivion.

But such rampant secrecy creates a sclerotic agency incapable of fulfilling its most basic functions. In the air war against Yugoslavia, NATO ran out of targets and turned to the CIA for suggestions. The agency came up with what it said was the Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement in Belgrade. Only after the structure was leveled and the bodies were counted was it discovered that the building was the Chinese Embassy. This was a fact well known to CIA analysts familiar with Belgrade; unfortunately, they had not been consulted.

So it was, too, when President Clinton sent a cruise missile into the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998 in retaliation for the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Agency analysts had rushed to declare that soil tests had found proof positive that the plant was making chemical weapons. The proof turned out to be less than positive. “Al Shifa is what happens when you let the boys play with the toys,” says one former spook.

The full extent of those earlier debacles could be cloaked in secrecy. The events of September 11 could not be. Today, the public’s dissatisfaction with the intelligence community is palpable. One post-September 11 poll conducted by cbs News showed that some 56 percent of those surveyed considered the attack the largest single intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.

Some now say that what the nation needs is a super-CIA, one placing the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and the National Security Agency under the authority of Langley–a concentration of power and secrecy that should send shivers down the spines of civil libertarians.

With such a track record, how is it that the CIA and its director, George Tenet, have not been subjected to more withering scrutiny from those charged with overseeing the intelligence behemoth? To explain why the agency has for years escaped criticism that might have led to corrective actions, one need only understand the workings of Washington’s old-boy network. Ironically, the chief peril the CIA now faces comes not from having too many enemies, but too many friends.

Tenet has been at the head of the agency since Deutch left in December 1996. Prior to that, he held a top position at the National Security Council, and before that he served as the senior staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the CIA. His friends in the Senate are loath to put his toes to the fire.

Tenet also has little to fear from the House Select Committee: It is headed by Rep. Porter Goss of Florida, who was a CIA operative before becoming a member of Congress. He has remained a faithful and steadfast cheerleader for Langley, though he admits that the agency’s image could do with some polishing.

Is it time to get rid of the CIA? “Now that’s a fair question,” Goss says. “If you ask me, ÔHave you ever thought about changing the name, moving the building, putting up a different flag, calling it something else?’ Yes, all of the above.”

Nor should one look to George Bush’s White House for critical oversight of the CIA. The president is not about to take on an institution whose headquarters is named after his father, one of the agency’s most popular former directors. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in [Tenet] and I’ve got a lot of confidence in the CIA,” Bush declared during his September visit to Langley.

Of course, the most stinging irony is that until quite recently, when the CIA was asked to enumerate its successes, Afghanistan was near the top of the list. That was because arming and training the mujahedin provided the agency a direct opportunity to inflict harm on its prime adversary, the Soviet Union, and ultimately to drive the Red Army out of the country in a Vietnam-like debacle.

The ultimate confession of shortsightedness comes from former CIA director Robert M. Gates. In his 1996 book, From the Shadows, he writes: “Our mission was to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan. We expected post-Soviet Afghanistan to be ugly, but never considered that it would become a haven for terrorists operating worldwide.” The key words: “never considered.” Like American foreign policy itself, the agency has often been myopic, operating on the principle that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. In a world of complexity, it has promoted stopgap measures that often made lasting solutions even more elusive.

Today the CIA is hamstrung by its own sullied past. At home, critics suspect it of having had a hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, of introducing crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles, and of a host of other conspiracies that remain utterly unproved. Overseas, its past shadows it from country to country and continent to continent, clouding America’s moral standing and its ability to gather the kind of intelligence that the nation will need in the years ahead.

Americans have long viewed the CIA as a rogue agency, its errant missions the work of covert cowboys.The truth–that everything it did, good and bad, originated in the Oval Office with either a presidential directive or a wink and a nod–is less comforting. It means that we as a nation bear a measure of responsibility for its actions, and its failures. Whether the CIA is still capable of effectively serving the nation is a question that can no longer be ignored.


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