Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Paul Wolfowitz (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Greg Gibson/J. Scott Applewhite)

Decades of failures: Why the CIA keeps blowing it

Every failure has been rewarded with more money -- and weakened America's standing around the world


Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
August 24, 2013 10:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence"

President Clinton gilded the lily when he said that Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., was a product of that desperate New York district Hell’s Kitchen. The senator had grown up at least partly in the Midwest. Yet it was true that he had experienced the downside of life. The grandson of a County Kerry horse breeder, his more immediate memories were of a father who gambled, drank, womanized, and left his mother in 1937. The young Moynihan had accumulated  dollars as a shiner of shoes and as a longshoreman. He attended high school on the unprivileged fringes of Harlem.

Early in his political career, Moynihan championed the cause of the poor and the rights of African Americans. In spite of this radical background, he must have seemed an unlikely person to lead the renewed attack on the CIA that took place in the 1990s. In some ways, he had become distinctly unradical. As with other self-made men, he felt he could be frank about the shortcomings of those who remained in poverty. He offended the left through his criticism of the morals of the black family, and was sufficiently conservative to  serve in the administration of Richard Nixon. In  fact, Moynihan  resembled that  well-known  brand of  neoconservative who started on the political left and ended on the right. That should have meant support for the CIA, as, by the 1990s, the agency had become a firm favorite of conservatives. Moynihan instead lent his prestige to a notable assault.

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In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the time was ripe for renewed questioning of the CIA and of intelligence agencies generally. The removal of the Soviet threat meant one could criticize the CIA—or MI6/MI5—without feeling unpatriotic. With talk of peace dividends in the air, the intelligence agencies were in line for cuts. This was a threat to intelligence liaison, even if in principle liaison was a means to economy through burden sharing. Criticism also eroded confidence, an essential ingredient in the trust that enables liaison. If Western intelligence agencies had played their part in hastening the fall of communism, they had become victims of their own success.

Moynihan attacked the CIA on two fronts. The first  had to do with incompetence and mendacity. The nomination of Robert Gates to be director of the CIA gave the senator a chance to air his concerns. Gates was a career CIA officer—a Russian specialist—who believed that the United States and the CIA in particular had been instrumental in bringing about the fall of communism, which for him was the "greatest of American triumphs." Under the leadership of William Casey (its director, 1981–87) and with the backing of President Reagan, the CIA had conducted a campaign of economic sabotage against the Soviet Union, for example, attempting to drive down oil prices in 1985 to impoverish the oil-exporting communist bloc.

Again, in the early 1980s Gates and others induced Congress to allocate funds to the "Star Wars" space war program—in the belief that this would induce emulative and ruinously expensive military escalation in the Soviet Union. They were open to the charge that in order to cajole Congress into allocating funds to Star Wars, they inflated the CIA’s estimate of the Soviet threat. True or false, their  rearmament campaign contrasted with that pursued by the CIA in the 1950s, when DCI Allen Dulles, with the backing of President Eisenhower, had tempered the alarmist claims of America’s "military-industrial complex."

Moynihan begged to differ from the 1980s CIA. He thought it was deplorable that the agency had "lied repeatedly, and egregiously." Indicating one reason for his animosity, he recalled how the CIA had deceived the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1984 by failing to apprise it of the covert operation to overthrow the government of  Nicaragua (in protest, Moynihan had resigned  as the committee’s vice chairman). In an allegation that was potentially damaging to Gates, Moynihan further maintained that the CIA had for forty years "hugely overestimated both the size of the Soviet economy and the rate of its growth," inducing  American emulative spending that was corrosive of American prosperity. The CIA then failed to predict the economic collapse in the USSR and the resultant collapse of European communism. Moynihan could not have disagreed more strongly with Gates’s triumphalism.

The second ground on which Moynihan attacked was that of excessive secrecy. In 1981, he had gone along with a partial exemption of the CIA from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, arguing it was necessary to protect not  only "sources and methods" but also "properly classified and other sensitive information." But by the 1990s, influenced by the illegal behaviour of the agency in the previous decade and by the end of the Cold War, he took a different stance. He argued that, ever since its secret slogan of 1947—"Bigger than State by ’48"—the CIA had engaged in expansionism. Its budget had grown at a rate of 17 percent each year in the 1980s. Now that the Cold War was over, the nation should discard the CIA’s illiberal and over-secretive tactics. The aggregated size of the intelligence budget (estimated unofficially at $30 billion)  should  be admitted and revealed. Harkening back to the days of U-1  and citing Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson in his support, Moynihan proposed in his "End of the Cold War Act of 1991" that the residual intelligence function of the CIA should return to the Department of State. He mounted a campaign in which he asserted that the term "intelligence community" had become "oxymoronic."

Moynihan  went  on  to  chair a  federal commission on government secrecy, and to write a book on that subject. In the mid-1990s he was still advocating the abolition of the CIA. He shared these views with a senior Labor Party defense specialist, John Gilbert, who would serve in the Tony Blair government. He welcomed the advent of greater openness in Russia, and the long-delayed publication within the United States of information derived from the so-long-kept-secret Venona program. Publications about Venona aired the evidence, kept out of the courts in the 1940s and 1950s for reasons of national security, that had occasioned the prosecution of the Rosenbergs as well as the arrest and trial of Alger Hiss on espionage-related charges. The libertarian left now had to confront realities conveyed by the long-buried evidence, and in this context the senator from New York was a distinctly conservative gadfly.

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There were setbacks for Moynihan. Gates was duly nominated in spite of the senator’s reservations, and headed the CIA, 1991–93. At first, this seemed to promise less secrecy. Gates convened a task force on greater CIA openness, and there was an acceleration in the declassification of records on past covert operations. The agency stepped up its production of official histories.

Yet although Moynihan’s own commission called for less secrecy in 1993, within three years the number of classified documents had increased by 62 percent, standing at 5,789,675. "Madness," cried the  disappointed Moynihan. When President Clinton commissioned a major inquiry into U.S. intelligence, Moynihan’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Next to the Church investigation of the 1970s, the Aspin-Brown investigation was the largest of the forty post-1946 government inquiries into intelligence. But it failed to endorse Moynihan’s abolitionist demand, calling instead for a further effort at centralization. Aspin-Brown agreed with Moynihan that there should be budget disclosure, but failed to achieve it. The senator had reason to feel frustrated.

In the event, though, his campaign against the CIA proved to have been a paragraph in a whole chapter of agency woes. Looking backwards from the perspective of 2008, the agency veteran Melvin Goodman would publish a book whose title conveyed its thesis:  "Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA." Goodman’s was a widely held view.

Clearly, the decline and fall hypothesis needs to be qualified. The agency did not "fall" in the sense of disappearing. It continued to perform some tasks effectively. It is  an accepted if too often stated maxim that for fear of betraying its methods, an intelligence agency can rarely publicize its successes, so to dwell on failings can be a distortion of the true record. It might be added that charges of failure were nothing new in the agency’s history, and stretched back to the 1940s underestimate of the speed at which the Soviet Union would develop its first atomic weapon. Moreover, some improvements were clearly visible—in the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations the agency broadened its talent pool by recruiting women and gays in a significant policy departure. There were improvements in other sections of the intelligence community, too. For example, with  Louis J. Freeh as its director (1993–2001), the FBI began to haul in one Mafia boss after another, achieving successes against organized crime that had eluded the legendary bureau boss J. Edgar Hoover.

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Yet it remains true that the failings of the CIA and broader U.S. intelligence community were major, visible, and debilitating for the agency. In 1994, the FBI arrested Aldrich Ames, a senior CIA officer who turned out to have been spying for the KGB and its successor the Russian Intelligence Service. His treason had inflicted extensive damage on the US intelligence effort. If FBI partisans felt smug about this, their feeling was misplaced. For in February 2001 came the arrest of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who had performed similar services for the Russians. These were the two most prominent cases among a rash of betrayals. Now at last, the British could lay to rest their feeling of shame about the Cambridge spy ring—but at the same time, there was a case for pondering the security rating of their main ally.

The Al Qaeda terrorist assault on New York’s Twin Towers in September 2011 (the "9/11" attack) resulted in roughly the same number of casualties as Pearl Harbor, and there were recriminations of a similar or even greater intensity. The FBI came in for criticism, but so did the rest of the intelligence community. After decades of heavy expenditure and false assurances, America was still vulnerable to surprise attack. Then came the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) scandal. Iraq’s secret development of chemical and nuclear weapons was the pretext for an Anglo-American military assault on that country in 2003 that actually had more to do with the protection of oil supplies and corporation profits. Both the CIA and MI6 succumbed to political pressure to back the WMD argument; no senior official in either agency subordinated his career to the national interest by telling the truth and/or resigning; there were comprehensive cover-ups, with Valerie Plame one of the victims. The resultant occupation of Iraq was a disaster for that country and exacted a cost that contributed to the economic decline of the USA and UK. Little wonder that the reputation of Anglo-American intelligence plummeted.

The Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 testified to the perception that there was a need for change. It created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the latest attempt to have one person exert authority over the recalcitrant and feuding sections of the intelligence community. The  CIA, though sometimes headed by  a military person, had  been essentially  a civilian agency and a check on the military outlook. The DNI usurped the CIA director’s role as head of the intelligence community. He talked the military talk of a man who was supposed to wage what President Bush called the "war against terror," but  was still, critics complained, a relatively feeble figure incapable of restraining the even more belligerent military-intelligence baronies. The new arrangement sidelined the CIA as a producer of intelligence estimates, consigning it instead to the practice of kidnap and murder or, to use the official language, "rendition" (the capture of terrorist suspects and their  transport to Guantanamo Bay and other locations under U.S. control) and "drone strikes" (the use of pilotless aircraft to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries).

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In terms of its proclaimed aims, the counter-terrorism program was effective. The campaign of assassination by machine disrupted Osama bin Laden’s network. The  2011  navy–CIA special forces operation against bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, resulted in the terrorist leader’s death.

However, there were questions to be asked about the health of the U.S. intelligence community. Its conduct weakened the moral appeal of American democracy. The community’s survival after the end of the Cold War had come to depend on the endless inflation of Endless Enemies (the title of one FBI agent’s memoir). Each time the intelligence community failed, it  was rewarded  with more money—a  politician’s way  of  deflecting attention from his incompetence by suggesting failure was the result of intelligence under-expenditure—and a way, too,  of buying the silence of intelligence officers who might blow the whistle on scandals like WMD.

But in straitened times expenditure became a problem. An internal report in 2009 accused the ODNI of allowing budget bloat, of financial mismanagement, and of lack of control over the very turf wars it had been created to halt. Critics complained there was too little bang for the bucks expended. In 2010 the Senate Intelligence Committee blasted the intelligence community for failing to collect and analyze information on the terrorist threat. In the same year, the intelligence budget peaked at $80 billion, perhaps a more honest figure than the £1.38 billion admitted to by British intelligence, but clearly on an entirely different plane even allowing for the relative sizes of the two nations. Given that level of expenditure, it was a serious matter when a Congressional Research Service report concluded that there was weak intelligence oversight and a widespread negative perception of the ODNI.

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Never a perfect instrument in itself—what institution is?—the American intelligence system had in the heyday of its cooperation with the British contributed to the defeat of fascism and then European communism. But by the end of the twentieth century it had developed, in addition to its inherent faults, a special weakness. It stood alone. Yes, it had loyal allies, but too loyal. It lacked real competition. Before the end of the Cold War, the KGB and Soviet military intelligence had provided an alternative interpretation of world events—an interpretation that was ideological in theory, but pragmatic in practice. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there were some alternative voices—the Qatarian broadcaster Al Jazeera began its service in 1996—but American intelligence and opinion dominated the scene. At home in the United States, it meant the American people were kept in the  dark. Internationally, U.S. intelligence domination was a recipe for subjectivity and discord.

General international cooperation was one alternative to US dominance. Moynihan was aware of President Wilson’s observation back in 1919—if the League of Nations became an effective instrument for international peace, spying would  cease to  be necessary. In the event, Wilson had resigned himself to the necessity for an American Black Chamber and to other means of U.S. espionage without considering the possibility that the League of Nations might be strengthened by having an intelligence service of its own. A similar question could have been asked of the United Nations—if the UN had its own intelligence, might it not prove to be an alternative to national intelligence services, or at least provide a different and more neutral perspective than that supplied by the intelligence service of a single nation state?

Conor Cruise O’Brien did not think so. The Irish journalist and politician formed his view against the background of the 1960s Congo crisis. In the Congo, the Belgian colonial rulers had been a byword for ruthless exploitation and had done little to prepare the huge nation for independence. Joseph Conrad had coined the phrase "heart of darkness" to describe the scene around 1900, Mark Twain was not far behind in the eloquence of his condemnation, and Barbara Kingsolver’s more recent novel illustrates how little had improved by the end of Belgian rule. Part of the problem was the Congo’s potential wealth, especially the mineral resources of its Katanga region. When Brussels suddenly conceded independence in 1960, both Moscow and Washington wanted the copper and cobalt resources.

Because the newly independent nation’s elected prime minister, Patrick Lumumba, was left leaning, President Eisenhower demanded "very straightforward action." Accordingly the CIA delivered rubber gloves, a syringe and a lethal biological substance to be injected into Lumumba’s food or toothpaste. Meanwhile the Belgians were scheming, ambitious Congolese were playing mutiny games, and there was a secession attempt in Katanga. Lumumba lasted only eleven weeks in office, and in 1961 was executed/assassinated, having been betrayed into the hands of the Katangese rebels. The CIA’s own assassination plans were thus made redundant as someone else had done the job, but at a cost to Congolese democracy.

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In mid-1960, the United Nations sent in an armed force to restore order and prevent the secession of Katanga. The soldiers achieved the latter goal, but failed to contain a war that cost 100,000 lives and ended with the imposition of a dictatorial pro-U.S. regime. Just as the Congo was sliding into a full-blown crisis, O’Brien found himself in the country as the special representative of Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat who served as UN Secretary General—and who would die in a mysterious plane crash in September 1961. "To Katanga and Back," O’Brien’s account of the Congolese imbroglio, explains how it was difficult to find out what was going on. The UN had no equivalent of the CIA or the Soviet intelligence service.

The UN did have Colonel Jonas Waern, the Swedish officer in command in South Katanga, who ran a spy ring in the strategic town of Elisabethville. The Katangan rebels saw Waern as a UN spymaster. O’Brien harbored thoughts of his own about the Swede: "When you meet someone who is much taller, handsomer, richer and more socially exalted than yourself, you are quite likely to assume, on insufficient evidence, that he is less intelligent." He confirmed that Waern’s efforts were amateurish and "a little comic."

O’Brien’s book carried the title "A Case History," and he elevated Waern’s deficiencies into two generalizations that would have considerable purchase in intelligence debate. The first was about ethics. He noted that while Hammarskjold saw the absence of a UN intelligence network as "a serious handicap" (O’Brien’s paraphrase), the secretary general insisted that the UN "must have clean hands" (Hammarskjold’s own words). O’Brien’s second generalization was to do with practicalities. The UN with its cosmopolitan makeup "could not ensure anything like the degree of security needed in serious intelligence work, and would be peculiarly liable to infiltration by agents of national services."

For many years, the UN  was a cross between a sleeping giant and an emperor with no clothes. Article 99 of the UN Charter of 1945 authorized the organization to report and thus potentially to collect intelligence: "The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security." Some smaller nations with fewer intelligence resources of their own to guard were keen to see a UN intelligence capability and Hammarskjold was not the only secretary general to note that ignorance was an impediment to UN  effectiveness. Hammarskjold’s successor U Thant saw the "lack of authoritative information" as one  of two "insuperable obstacles" confronting him (the other was the doctrine of national sovereignty). Yet in spite of such support and perceptions, Article  99 was rarely invoked and UN intelligence teetered between slumber and illusion until the end of the Cold War.

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Walter Dorn, the Canadian scientist and peacekeeping activist who is the leading historian of UN intelligence, sees the pre-1990s period as one of dormancy. There was nevertheless some UN  intelligence gathering and analysis in these Cold War years. Although the Swedish UN force commander in the Congo suggested the term intelligence should be ‘banned outright’ from UN discourse, his efforts to prevent civil war resulted in the creation of the mission’s Military Information Branch whose unit heads called themselves ‘chief intelligence officers’.

With the end of the Cold War, there was change. The UN conducted significant peacekeeping missions in the Congo once again as well as in Namibia and Rwanda. With these in progress and with communist Yugoslavia in end-of-Cold War meltdown, Balkan nationalism on the boil, and genocide in the making, there was a pressing need for a UN intelligence capability. A response came from Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In 1993 he established a Situation Center (SitCen), and within that an Information and Research Unit consisting of six intelligence officers supplied gratis by France, the UK, Russia, and the United States.

In 1999, the arrangement  fell victim to a rebellion by poorer nations who saw it as a means of perpetuating UN control by the richer members who supplied personnel free of charge but with controlling strings attached. Nevertheless, in the first decade of the twenty-first century the UN continued to develop its intelligence facilities, venturing beyond its traditional reliance on HUMINT  to draw on IMINT and SIGINT as well. By the end of the decade, the UN had 115,000 peacekeepers in the field. Only the USA had a greater number of personnel deployed in comparable activities, and there was a clear need for the UN to have intelligence backup. In 2006, it became a requirement that every UN  peacekeeping mission in the field should contain a joint mission analysis center.

These were significant developments on the tactical level. But ever since an initiative of 1988 by Argentina, Greece, India, Mexico, Sweden, and Tanzania, there has also been a demand for UN intelligence involvement in treaty verification and arms control. UN inspectors were involved on the ground in Iraq in monitoring the development (or otherwise) of weapons of mass destruction. Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat in charge of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission in Iraq, kept national intelligence services at arm’s length. He regarded their product as contaminated politically. But he was unable to persuade the US and UK governments to accept his own unit’s more authoritative estimates. In this case UN intelligence was competitive, but wilfully ignored.

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The  slow rate at which the United  Nations has emerged as a force in global intelligence is partly a consequence of its officials’ idealistic rejection of dirty play. In turn, that reflects a broad definition of intelligence. Widely deployed since the Second World  War, that definition assumes that intelligence  is not just about information and analysis, but also embraces covert action and dirty tricks.

A second reason for UN tardiness has been U.S. obstruction. America saw UN intelligence in two ways—positively as a source of potentially useful liaison, and negatively  as a source of competitive estimates. The former fell victim to fears of the latter. For as ever, information was power. Just as Admiral Hall had denied codebreaking methodology to the Americans in 1917–19, so the Americans opposed the UN development of intelligence assets that would have involved the sharing of expertise as distinct from unilaterally selected information, and might have undermined their own capacity to deliver a U.S. spin on world events.

The United States was committed to aspects of global collective cooperation that it favored. A 1977 Senate committee on government operations review of US international policy noted that America’s annual contribution to international organizations including UN agencies had  risen from $129 million to $1.02 billion between 1949 and 1975. It concluded that to avoid "diplomatic defeats," the USA needed to expend "more effort." There were intelligence dimensions to this contribution. For example, there was an American commitment to international police cooperation. A French initiative had established Interpol in 1914; the FBI began to cooperate with it in 1938; America increased its financial contribution to Interpol in 1974 and redoubled its enthusiasm when it assumed control of the organization in the 1980s.

In 1992, President George Bush Sr. promised the UN general assembly U.S. intelligence support for peacekeeping operations. CIA director Gates set the policy in motion. Wearing his director of central intelligence hat, Gates assigned the responsibility for UN support to the Defense Intelligence Agency. With peacekeeping crises in full spate in war-torn Rwanda and Bosnia, President Clinton repeated his predecessor’s undertaking, promising in 1994 that America would "share information, as appropriate, while ensuring full protection of sources and methods."

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But President Clinton did not carry the day for U.S.–UN liaison. Under his aegis, American officials opposed the use of the word "intelligence" to describe functions undertaken by the UN, encouraging instead the use of the  word "information." For their own reasons, they thus encouraged attitudes that already existed in the UN. The Americans’ reasons were only partly to do with the protection of power. The charge that UN officials could not be trusted with secrets was still a motivating factor, even if it sounded strange coming from a nation that had produced Aldrich Ames. Hostility to the United Nations as a whole was another factor. The UN had been to an appreciable degree a U.S. creation, but when membership proliferated with decolonization and America could not longer outvote its opponents in the General Assembly, the institution lost its charm. The nation that had spawned Tammany Hall politics now complained that the UN was corrupt and inefficient, and deserving only of reserved support.

Underlying this attitude, there was also a philosophical change in American politics. Out went the old-style neoconservative, radical in his youth and reactionary in later years. In came a new brand of neoconservative, professing admiration for the unilateralism of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–09), architect of U.S. naval might and wielder of the "big stick" in foreign policy. American respect for legality, remarked on by Crevecœur in the eighteenth century and much in evidence since, now fell short of respect for international law. Under President Reagan, the CIA had mined the harbors of Nicaragua. The international court at The Hague condemned the action, but the new breed of neoconservative did not care. America would go it alone.

In the spring of 1992 President Bush’s defense secretary, Dick Cheney, issued a draft Pentagon plan for national security. Largely written by Undersecretary for Policy Paul D. Wolfowitz, a leading neoconservative, it came to be known as the "America Only" plan. Now the sole superpower, America would under the plan look after its allies, but should not countenance any threat to its authority. In Europe, where there were stirrings of an independent collective defense policy, the American-dominated NATO must remain the sole arbiter of power. And as the journalist Patrick Tyler put it, the America Only plan was "conspicuously devoid of references to collective action through  the United  Nations." The  White  House and Department of State disavowed the plan and the Republicans would lose the election of 1992. But Wolfowitz had articulated a significant viewpoint. It would be problematic for the Clinton administration long before Dick Cheney returned to office as an influential vice president, 2001–09.

Reacting to a story that UN  officials had leaked American secrets to Somalian warlords in a way that led to the deaths of eighteen U.S. Rangers, Republicans in Congress drew up a series of proposals curtailing U.S. intelligence cooperation with the UN. President Clinton refused to implement them, but the pressure increased when the Republicans won the mid-term elections of 1994. Responding  to this political problem, the administration set several ascending levels of secrecy, restricting aid to the UN to the lower levels. In mid-decade, the issue attracted the attention of the Aspin-Brown inquiry. Aspin-Brown was in favor of burden sharing. Loch Johnson, an experienced intelligence investigator and scholar, helped to draw up the Aspin-Brown findings in 1996. He and his colleagues noted how the USA "could benefit from intelligence sharing with other nations and with international organizations."

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At the time, the Clinton administration resembled an internationalist butterfly trying to escape its cage. The president signed the War Crimes Act of 1996 making it illegal for U.S. citizens to violate the Geneva Convention of 1949, and (in 2000) the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, making it possible to prosecute members of the U.S. armed services for crimes committed abroad. In 2000, Clinton also signed up to the International Criminal Court to be established at The Hague for the purpose of trying the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Even so, intelligence cooperation with the UN remained perilous political terrain. Aspin-Brown kept its recommendations  deliberately vague for fear that congressional unilateralists "might recoil at the idea of sharing information with the United Nations."

Soon after 9/11, the United States once again distanced itself from the frameworks of international law. The Bush Jr. administration dissociated America from the International Criminal Court. It decided to detain Al Qaeda suspects wherever they were found, and to imprison them in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as in a variety of undisclosed locations without benefit of trial until such time as  they could be subjected to  military tribunals. The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies would be involved in the resultant procedures of kidnap and interrogation under torture. This was in the name of a "war" against terrorism, but it was a "war" only in a selective sense. In January  2002, President Bush suspended American compliance with the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war, on the ground that Al Qaeda operatives wore no uniforms and were "illegal enemy combatants" not soldiers.

By 2010, with President Obama now in office, the United Nations was seeking the role of overseer. A UN special rapporteur on extralegal, summary, or arbitrary executions, the Australian Philip Alston, reported on the CIA’s use of drones for purposes of assassination. He suggested that there might be better accountability  if the military took over responsibility for the strikes. Another UN  special rapporteur, Martin Scheinin from Finland, drew up a "Compilation of good practices on legal and institutional frameworks and measures to ensure respect for human rights by intelligence agencies while countering terrorism." Practice 30 stipulated that "Intelligence services are not permitted to operate their own detention facilities or to make use of any unacknowledged detention facilities operated by third parties." These are just two examples and U.S.–UN cooperation continued in a variety of ways, but such spats with America made the UN seem a risky intelligence partner for other nations.

Bilateral intelligence liaison thus preserved its relative preeminence. Here, however, the United States was looking beyond its traditional partner, the UK. One factor accounting for this was the variegated nature of intelligence liaison. A nation may have different liaison needs in different parts of the world. It may also have an inner and outer tier of intelligence collaborators. Again, intelligence runs to several different types, such as technical, human, signals, imaging, covert operational, counter-terror, and negative (counter-espionage). A bilateral relationship might involve one of these types but not another, and take place at a higher or a lower level of confidentiality. No one bilateral relationship  is likely to involve all types of liaison in every quarter of the globe at the highest level. In the case of the U.S.–UK relationship, there has been, in the estimate of one senior official, consistently good interchange between the NSA and GCHQ  over SIGINT matters, and the "bumps" in the relationship have been to do with HUMINT  and counterintelligence. With other intelligence partners, the United States encountered different strengths and different weaknesses, suggesting the need for a web of bilateral relationships, not just one.

As Britain’s global power continued to decline, America’s need to look elsewhere increased. Additionally, demographic change was continuing apace. Immigration, always one of America’s great strengths, was continuing with undiminished vigor, and with a new diversity that did not help the cause of traditional Atlanticists.

"Hispanic" migrants (many of native American extraction) flowed through the porous U.S.–Mexican boundary in an ever-increasing flood. In the years after 2000, a million immigrants a year arrived, most of them from Latin America, with China and India in second and third place. Californians of European descent were now a minority of the population of their state, the largest in the Union. Detroit had the greatest concentration of Arab speakers of any city outside the Middle East. Like the urbanization of America that culminated in the late 1920s, it was a transforming and irreversible trend—by 2012, fewer than half the annual births in America were to non-Hispanic whites.

Because of this changing demography as well as because  of global interests, American perceptions changed. According to  Transatlantic Trends, whereas in 2004 a majority of Americans still thought their vital interests lay mainly with Europe, by September 2011 only 38 per cent took that view, with a majority looking to Asia. President Obama envisaged a U.S. "pivot to the Pacific," with the nation swinging to concentrate naval and other resources in the Far East.

Demography’s influence on politics, diplomacy, and the tasking of intelligence agencies takes place slowly. Even if an immigrant arrives legally, and many from Latin America and Asia did not, it takes time to register for the vote and to muster up an interest in American politics and global policies. Already by the 1990s, however, there was an observable Hispanic presence in the CIA.

There were also social and geographic changes. In the 1960s, the increasing need for technicians and the Bay of Pigs disgrace had been a blow to the hitherto privileged and humanities-educated WASP. In the following decades, demographic development hastened the decline of Ivy League influence not just because of ethnic and social change, but also because America’s population and voting power were no longer concentrated in the Northeast. The "Sunbelt" states stretching from Florida to California now held the cards. The new American nation no longer identified foreign policy priorities while looking eastward across the Atlantic. It gazed at new vistas, south across the Rio Grande, and west across the Pacific.

Presenting an overview of U.S. external liaison arrangements in 2006, Loch Johnson was still able to observe that there were "close" intelligence relationships between, on the one hand America, and on the other hand, Britain and its white Commonwealth partners, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The U.S.–UK link was "a special case" because  of the "intertwined history between two enduring democracies that share a common language and culture." He reflected a view widely held in the countries concerned. For example, Paul Monk, formerly an analyst with the Australian Defense Intelligence Organization, stated in 2003 that his country had "a very special intelligence relationship with the Americans."

While these were accurate observations, they referred to a limited spectrum. A number of factors undermined the "special intelligence relationship" of old. There  was the  issue of the  passive appendage. As it gradually supplanted MI6, the CIA had created a number of clones and clients— there were complaints, for example, that the Australian Secret Intelligence Organization (ASIO) colluded with the CIA to overthrow Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. Was ASIO an independent collaborator, or simply an extension of the CIA? Similarly, there were doubts about the independence of British intelligence over the  WMD  issue. British decline, U.S. intelligence weaknesses, U.S. unilateralism, and U.S. demographic change all eroded faith in the Anglo-American special intelligence relationship.

The United  States turned to other partners, yet became increasingly alone. It  had  plenty  of  potential  friends, but did not want to trust them. This lack of trust applied both to single countries and to collective entities—the European Union, as well as the UN. There were some good reasons for this, such as the impossibility of finding a partner that could match America’s intelligence resources and thus be an equal informational trading partner. There were also less good reasons, such an unwillingness to listen to other points of view, a reluctance that defied common sense. One reason behind this was a weakness inherited from the British Empire and its predecessors, imperial hubris and racial prejudice.

Loch Johnson indicated that Germany was in the upper section of the lower tier of US foreign intelligence partners, and "closer to the norm" than the UK. Historically, Germany, and especially West Germany in the Cold War, had been strategically positioned to spy on the communist East, and had been rich, if unreliable, in the field of HUMINT.

Germany was another white country. In spite of the cosmopolitan makeup of the United  States, "Anglo-Saxon" prejudices lingered and helped to explain the Washington–Berlin axis. In contrast, U.S. suspicions of Arab-Americans had contributed to the paucity of Arabic speakers in the American intelligence community. The danger of this ethnic bias became evident in retrospect. Intercepted Arabic-language messages would have given warning of 9/11, but  the backlog was too great and they remained untranslated.

There was at least some realization that in the post-Cold War environment intelligence officials from white nations might not always be the most effective partners. In January 2009,  in the wake of a terrorist attack on Mumbai that killed 164 people, the former State Department analyst Wilter Andersen pointed to an urgent need for improved intelligence liaison between the USA and India.

More problematic but recognized as a critical ingredient in combating the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in stabilizing politics in a nuclear-armed nation, was the issue of US–Pakistani intelligence liaison. America suspected the CIA’s partner, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, of harboring Taliban sympathizers and of being untrustworthy. Pakistan, for its part, was embarrassed by, if complicit in, the CIA’s drone strikes on targets within its borders—and angered by Obama’s lack of consultation with Islamabad before sending in the team that assassinated bin Laden. Whereas in 2010 the New York Times reported that the U.S. and Pakistani agencies had "built trust," in the aftermath of the bin Laden strike the same newspaper indicated that America’s "broad security partnership with Pakistan is over."

There was an advantage in cooperating in certain intelligence fields with agencies that were otherwise unattached to the CIA, and here some accommodations were  struck. The Russian Intelligence Service could be  of assistance over environmental issues. Its Chinese rival was, in spite of military and trade competition with the United States, glad of U.S. help in supplying listening stations along its Russian border.

And then there was Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. Just as MI6 had done in the past, Mossad sometimes acted like an enemy service, spying on U.S. secrets (in 1987, Jonathan Pollard of U.S. naval intelligence went to prison having been found guilty of spying for Mossad). There were also questions about its reliability and expertise. There was a feeling that Israel tended to cry wolf about the atomic threat coming from Iran and Syria. Israel had to contend with memories of the sham-WMD scare over Iraq. To some observers, Israel seemed a less reliable source of information on the Arab world than Britain with its longstanding interests in the Middle East. But in the 2000s just as in the 1950s, America considered Mossad to be an indispensable ear to the ground in a region that was difficult to understand, and vital economically. It was an intelligence partnership, if of the minnow-and-whale variety.

Turning back to Europe, there is some evidence that America, which had after all sponsored European unity in the 1940s and 1950s, was taking more seriously the advantages of cooperating in intelligence matters with the European Union (EU). Just after 9/11, the Dutch intelligence expert Cees Wiebes noted that as much as 60 per cent of the CIA’s "product" had, in the period of the Cold War, come from "cooperating services." He saw "U.S.–European intelligence  liaison" as a way of keeping costs under control in America at a time of escalating efforts against terrorism. Another European commentator reflected that America might want to  nurture European defense integration, as it would release the USA from the obligation to resource NATO and allow it to concentrate on other parts of the  globe. Still another stated that European officials were offering intelligence cooperation to the United States even as their political leaders denounced U.S. foreign policy.

When the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove visited Washington in September 2011, he observed that the Obama administration was grateful for European support in winding down Guantanamo Bay. He further noted a willingness on the part of President Obama to solicit EU support for his positions, support he could deploy in internal U.S. debate—an indication that the EU carried at least some weight. On the other hand, Kerchove reported continuing U.S. confusion about the role the EU played, as distinct from the contributions of its member states.

True  though it may be that the U.S. intelligence community obtains significant knowledge through its liaison arrangements, no one such arrangement as yet replicates the traditional bilateral relationship between the USA and the UK. Nor can it be said that any collective organization—the UN, NATO, or the EU—has hitherto supplied viable overall competition to the United States in the field of secret intelligence. None has constituted an alternative to American hegemony.

Against that background, the UK intelligence community has remained convinced that its  relationship with its U.S. counterpart is wise, and still "special" in the sense that Britain is a privileged partner. Senior British intelligence officials are sometimes critical of U.S. intelligence performance, but continue to see the special relationship with America as the best available option. In fact, they see an increase in the level of Anglo-American cooperation post-9/11. With the Americans supplying expensive high-technology output based on satellite and other means of espionage, the British conceive of themselves as having reciprocated with wisdom stemming from experience, expertise in specialist areas, and "trusted peer review and second opinions."

Faith and trust are necessary to  the  success of a special intelligence relationship, and at the higher levels it has continued to exist in the UK regarding the U.S. partnership. On the American side, too, there is some evidence of that faith. In June 2011, a group of a dozen middle-ranking U.S. intelligence officials met with the author, under the auspices of the "Georgetown salon," to discuss the state of Anglo-American cooperation. After drinks and surf-and-turf refreshment, they expressed some reservations: the Pacific arena was now important; perhaps the British might consider a new special relationship with the emerging economic giant, India; British intelligence officials could be irritatingly condescending. However, all those present placed a high value on intelligence liaison, and none of them felt that the Anglo-American intelligence relationship had weakened.

So it is still possible for the British to speak of the Americans, in spy parlance, as "cousins." Yet, caution is in order. After all, if a group of men and women meet to discuss their nation’s friendship with the British, they are likely to be Anglophiles. In wider American discourse less and less is heard about the special relationship with Britain. Writing on the special relationship in the 1990s, the political journalist John Dickie wrote, "the term is rarely heard in Washington—even in the British Embassy." Americans can find it amusing that the British harp on about the special relationship while U.S. officials only employ the phrase to placate the British. In the view of some critics, the whole idea is a "one-way" concept with the British doing the Americans’ bidding in exchange for erratic tidbits of information. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Ron Suskind was an admirer of British intelligence, but saw no evidence that the Bush administration had heeded the cautions British analysts had offered. Writing about the problem in 2008, he headlined his article "How America Squanders Britain’s Gift."

Senator Moynihan had voiced concerns about the CIA and about excessive government secrecy, and subsequent attempts at reform did little to halt the decline of U.S. intelligence performance. U.S. insistence on unilateralism by definition meant no reliance on any ally, and no trust in the UN. The American public and Congress were starved of access to genuinely different analyses of matters of vital importance like the WMD threat.

From the British point of view, assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, the cousin was now a more distant cousin. If the close reliance on America remained sacrosanct, it was at least partly because of the presumed absence of an alternative.

Reprinted from "In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence" by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones with permission of Oxford University Press. © Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones 2013.


Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones

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