Shut Down the CIA

After the Lake fiasco, it's time to think again about closing the den of incompetent spooks.


Andrew Ross
March 20, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

SURE, Anthony Lake was, as he self-pityingly put it, a "dancing bear in a political circus." And for a clown like Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to question Lake's fitness for responsible office takes the concept of the pot calling the kettle black to new heights.

Still, Lake's withdrawal from consideration as CIA director constitutes no great loss. There clearly was some shabby business involving the National Security Council and the Democratic Party during his avuncular watch as that agency's head. His publicly expressed doubts about the guilt of Alger Hiss were as laughable as they were intellectually troubling. "Managerial skills" aside, there was no indication that Lake had the intestinal fortitude to bring the out-of-control CIA to heel.

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The only remaining mystery is why he wanted the job in the first place. Come to that, why would anyone want it? The only decent director in the past 10 years, John Deutch, burned out after 18 months, trying to ride herd on a government body filled with high-level traitors, low-level murderers and a raft of "intelligence analysts" who managed to miss, or misinterpret, virtually every major shift in foreign affairs since the end of World War II.

In Salon's very first issue (unfortunately not archived), we suggested that federal marshals surround CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., give every employee there 12 hours to remove their personal belongings (NOT their files), and simply shut the place down. Nothing that has happened since -- the further revelations of damage done by Aldrich Ames, the arrest of former station chief Harold Nicholson, the shameful treatment of whistle-blower Richard Nuccio -- has caused us to change our minds. Given the Lake fiasco, this could be a perfect time to give the proposal serious consideration.

After all, what is the worst that could happen? We're not waging any secret wars these days; we've won the Cold War -- which the CIA was established to help fight -- and we hardly need the CIA to tell us which nations still wish us ill. As for the groups that actually have the dedication and means to do us ill -- by blowing planes out of the sky, for example, or driving truck bombs straight into military barracks in the desert -- well, the CIA doesn't actually know anything about them. Yet there are 80,000 people on the CIA payroll. What on earth do they all do?

If shutting the CIA down is judged to be premature, perhaps the next set of Senate Intelligence Committee hearings might at least examine its ongoing worth before dressing up another director-nominee in a bear's outfit and hitting him with sticks. Does the CIA do more for this country than the more familiar targets of Republican budget-cutters, like the Education Department, or the Commerce Department, or even the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? If so, what? What can the CIA do in this unipolar, free-market world that the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and U.S.-based multinational corporations can't?

Deutch, in his all-too-limited reign, did begin a sort of cost-benefit analysis of the CIA payroll, matching the quality of intelligence produced with the cost of the agent producing it. Thousands of jobs were cut as a result. Assuming the Clinton administration does not simply scrap this Cold War relic, and further assuming (a fairly safe assumption) that Congress is more interested in bear-baiting than in a sober consideration of the country's needs, at least they ought to choose a cold-blooded corporate budget-slasher for the next nominee. Rather than serving up another tweedy intellectual or political hack, how about a hard-nosed businessman, like Robert Allen of AT&T, who has no qualms about cutting tens of thousands of jobs at a single stroke? That kind of tough-mindedness plays well on both ends of Capitol Hill these days. That's why we're able to throw millions of Americans off welfare, isn't it?


Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

MORE FROM Andrew Ross

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