The CIA Must Rely More on Collecting Human Intelligence
Earlier this summer, when the CIA released the “family jewels” — nearly 700 pages of documents detailing some of its most infamous and illegal operations dating back to the 1950s — the question that immediately came to mind was: Why now?
After all, Director of Central Intelligence Bill Colby had let some of those secrets out during the Church Committee hearings in the early 1970s. When Colby made the initial revelations, there was widespread anger among the old agency hands, particularly those from World War II’s Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s precursor. Much of this anger resided in the division known as the Clandestine Service, which thought it owned most of the jewels. Colby had betrayed them. More gems dropped out of the bag in subsequent years.
Today, there is no cadre of old-timers to rise up in anger. Most of them are either dead or so far removed from the realities of espionage that they do not care much what happens in Langley, Va. It was, therefore, a pretty safe time for Gen. Hayden to put his jewels on the table, as it were. Or perhaps the CIA released the information because it wanted some cover for its questionable activities in the rendition and interrogation business. Framed against a backdrop of past sins, today’s CIA might seem less horrendous.
Still, these explanations aren’t sufficient. It could be that the agency knew that Tim Weiner’s book “Legacy of Ashes” was about to be published. Weiner had unique access to the CIA leadership of the early years, and he was about to expose their secrets himself. By releasing the secrets first, Hayden preempted Weiner.
One unintended result of the release of the vast store of CIA secrets is that it denigrates covert action operations in favor of human intelligence collection, which will play such an important part in our struggle with terrorism. And to understand the difference between covert action and human intelligence, you have to understand the reality of the CIA, which evolved from the OSS.
During World War II, OSS personnel parachuted behind enemy lines to establish contact with and organize resistance groups to harass the Germans and Japanese. It was a classic hot war operation. Those who did it were heroes in the truest sense of the word.
When CIA’s existence was legitimized in the post-war years, its management was handed over to those senior OSS officers who chose to respond to the challenge of the Cold War — Allen Dulles, Richard Helms and Des Fitzgerald. Their experience was almost entirely in paramilitary operations, which today are part of the world of covert action. That is what they knew and understood, so when successive presidents wanted someone assassinated or a foreign government overthrown, that kind of covert action was right up their alley.
They were less knowledgeable about humint operations, particularly against difficult targets like the U.S.S.R., China and terrorism, which are time-consuming, frustrating, tedious and only occasionally successful. Compared with the flash and bang of covert actions, they are mundane and boring.
Because the old OSS types had so little experience in humint, there was never a sufficiently strong worldwide effort against those hard targets. Presidents and CIA management were interested, instead, in covert action. It was infinitely easier to recruit some Third World newspaperman to place articles favorable to the United States in his paper than it was to recruit a Soviet. A lot of CIA officers got promoted doing just that.
So the CIA of the post-war years was primarily a covert action organization, which, according to the newly exposed record, wasn’t even terribly good at covert action. For those officers who saw the USSR as a real threat, covert action operations were an impediment that drew resources away from the really important job of recruiting Soviets. This was a major factor in the inability of the CIA to penetrate the highest policy-making levels of the USSR.
Take an agency management that neither promoted or understood the nuts and bolts of humint operations, couple it with the paranoid madness of those agency managers who believed the Soviet KGB controlled everything we tried to do against them, and you have a clandestine service that was destined to underperform against the most important and difficult target we had.
Has any of this changed? One of the major messages of the Weiner book is that, with the possible exception of former DCI George H. W. Bush, no president has ever understood what the CIA could and could not do. The CIA probably failed in its cold war covert action operations because most Americans (the Mafia excluded) are not very good at assassinations. Picture an Ivy Leaguer planning Castro’s assassination.
Whether presidents like it or not, the CIA is a reflection of the American ethos. When it ceases to be that, this country will have made a major change for the worse.
We may be approaching that point now.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.?