Sunday, April 10, 2005

The CIA's incompetence writ large

Since the mid-1970s, the CIA has been basically incompetent. The Church Commission, Ford's Executive Order circumscribing CIA involvement in assassinations, and especially the completely disastrous Directorship of Stansfield Turner left the CIA neutered. Excessive Congressional meddling disguised as "oversight" further eviscerated the agency's ability to take aggressive action. And when it actually did so, it did so stupidly (Iran-Contra). The CIA completely missed the fall of the Soviet Union, completely failed to warn the President that Saddam would invade Kuwait in 1990 and honked on the relatively bloodless (Ceaucescu blood excepted) revolutions in Eastern Europe from '89-91.

So it's no surprise that the CIA's analysis and predictions regarding the Middle East and the Iraqi political scene have been a total disaster for more than 1.5 decades. Mark Steyn details some of the CIA's embarrassments in his weekly Chicago Sun-Times column (link above). Here are excerpts:

. . . back in the real world, the glass in Iraq is three-quarters full, which is why stories on the subject are buried so deep in the paper they might as well be in Sandy [Berger]'s gusset. Saddam's old prison state is now the first Arab country with a non-Arab head of state: a Kurd, Jalal Talabani. When you're trying to make sense of the bewildering array of Iraqi politicians who prospered in the January elections, a good rule of thumb is: Chances are they're guys who've been stiffed by the CIA. President-to-be Talabani fell out with them a decade ago, when they pulled the plug on a U.S.-backed insurrection at 48 hours' notice and failed to pay the late cancellation fee. Talabani was part of the Kurdish delegation that had a ''secret'' meeting with CIA honchos in April 2002, in which the drollest exchange came when the Kurds expressed skepticism as to whether the officials present really represented the U.S. government.

. . . The CIA, as I wrote a couple of years back, now functions in the same relation to President Bush as Pakistan's ISI does to General Musharraf. In both cases, before the chief executive makes a routine request of his intelligence agency, he has to figure out whether they're going to use it as an opportunity to set him up, and if so how. For Musharraf, the problem is the significant faction in the ISI that would like to kill him. Fortunately for Bush, if anyone at the CIA launched a plot to kill him, they'd probably take out G. W. Bish, who runs a feed store in Idaho.

Consider, for example, the case of Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. In the early '90s, the CIA set up the INC with Chalabi at the helm. Then they fell out with him and decided they preferred a rival group, the Iraqi National Accord, set up by Britain's MI6 . . . Well, fair enough. [snip] But what's harder to excuse is the energy they devoted -- for the best part of the subsequent decade -- to trashing their own creation. Hardly a week went by without assiduous feeding of anti-INC stories to the press.

* * *
As we now know, it is not true to say ''Ahmed Chalabi Has Virtually No Backing.'' He came out pretty near the top in the January elections and he's a big player in Iraqi politics. But the CIA version -- that he's some snake-oil salesman who pulled the wool over the Bush administration's eyes even though he has no support inside his own country -- is now unshakeable. Only the other day, Maureen Dowd, the New York Times' elderly schoolgirl, fell back for the umpteenth time on one of her lamest tropes:

''Ahmad Chalabi conned his neocon pals, thinking he could run Iraq if he gave the Bush administration the smoking gun it needed to sell the war.''

I don't know whether the CIA ever thinks through the implications of its own spin, but which reflects more poorly on them? The claim, which is now demonstrably absurd, that he has no support inside Iraq? Or the notion that some no-account schlub, a British subject living in exile whom the Company plucked from obscurity and created a phony resistance movement for him to head, somehow managed to hoodwink the government of the world's superpower over eight years of objections from its own intelligence agency?

Read it all.

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