Tuesday, December 11, 2007

CIA's mutiny

The column by Slate.com's Christopher Hitchens linked in the title of this post has a misleading subheadline -- "Destroying the interrogation tapes amounts to mutiny and treason." But that's not the point of Hitchens' fine column.

Instead, Hitchens notes that the CIA is a sanitarium run by the looniest inmates. His column bashing the CIA's conclusions in the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is worth reading in full, but here are substantial excerpts (all emphases added):

. . .
It is completely false for anybody to claim, on the basis of this admitted "estimate," that Iran has ceased to be a candidate member of the fatuously named nuclear "club." It has the desire to acquire the weaponry, it retains the means to do so, and it has been caught lying and cheating about the process. If it suspended some overtly military elements of the project out of a justifiable apprehension in 2003, it has energetically persisted in the implicit aspects—most notably the installation of gas centrifuges at the plant in Natanz and the building of a heavy water reactor at Arak. All that the estimate has done is to define weaponry down and to suggest a distinction without much difference between a "civilian" and a "military" dimension of the same program. The acquisition of enriched uranium and of plutonium, for any purpose, is identical with the acquisition of a thermonuclear weapons capacity. Iran continues to strive to produce both, neither of which, as it happens, are required for its ostensible civilian energy needs.

* * *

Why, then, have our intelligence agencies helped to give the lying Iranian theocracy the appearance of a clean bill, while simultaneously and publicly (and with barely concealed relish) embarrassing the president and crippling his policy? It is not just a hypothetical strike on Iran that is rendered near-impossible by this estimate, but also the likelihood of any concerted diplomatic or economic pressure, as well. The policy of getting the United Nations to adopt sanctions on the regime, which was about to garner the crucial votes, can now be regarded as clinically dead. A fine day's work by those who claim to guard us while we sleep.

One explanation is that, like Mark Twain's cat, which having sat on a hot stove would never afterward sit on a cold one, the CIA has adopted a policy of caution to make up for its "slam-dunk" embarrassment over Iraq. This is a superficially plausible hypothesis, which ignores the fact that for most of the duration of the Iraq debate, the CIA was all but openly hostile to any argument for regime-change in Baghdad. This hostility extended all the way from a frenzied attempt to discredit Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, to the Plame/Wilson imbroglio, and the agency's "referral" of Robert Novak's disclosure to the Department of Justice. Interagency hostility in Washington, D.C., between the CIA and the Department of Defense has never been so damaging to any administration, let alone to any administration in time of war, as it has been to this one.

Considering how much more effective the State Department's intelligence arm, and the Defense Intelligence Agency has been, there is a legitimate argument for abolishing the CIA -- especially now as it has become more of the shady lair of questionable personalities evoked in a Bourne movie than a repository of brilliant analysts and ultra-competent agents that you would see in an adaptation of a Tom Clancy technothriller.

Last word to Hitchens:

. . . Despite a string of exposures going back all the way to the Church Commission, the CIA cannot rid itself of the impression that it has the right to subvert the democratic process both abroad and at home. Its criminality and arrogance could perhaps have been partially excused if it had ever got anything right, but, from predicting the indefinite survival of the Soviet Union to denying that Saddam Hussein was going to invade Kuwait, our spymasters have a Clouseau-like record, one that they have earned yet again with their exculpation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was after the grotesque estimate of continued Soviet health and prosperity that the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that the CIA should be abolished. It is high time for his proposal to be revived. The system is worse than useless—it's a positive menace. We need to shut the whole thing down and start again.

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