In the course of research for my two-volume history of Ronald Reagan I read through a lot of declassified CIA assessments and reports, and was amazed at how consistently bad, and most often wrong, the analysis was. Here’s one example I included in the book:
On October 5, 1973, the CIA’s daily bulletin commented on Egyptian military exercises on the west bank of the Suez canal, just across the canal from the Israeli-occupied Sinai peninsula: “The exercise and alert activities . . . in Egypt may be on a somewhat larger scale and more realistic than previous exercises, but they do not appear to be preparing for a military offensive against Israel.” The very next day, the CIA’s daily bulletin reiterated its judgment that “For Egypt a military initiative makes little sense at this critical juncture.” Before the ink was dry, 70,000 Egyptian troops and 800 tanks started rolling across pontoon bridges over the Suez. Syria launched a simultaneous surprise attack in the Golan Heights to Israel’s northeast. The attack had been carefully planned for months, yet Egypt achieved complete surprise over the CIA.
I could go on with a whole catalogue of CIA assessment blunders, from the Bay of Pigs, repeated wrongheaded conclusions about Vietnam, completely wrongheaded conclusions about the Soviet economy almost to the very end, and underestimating Soviet military expenditures and arms buildups. The CIA concluded after Pope John Paul II was named in 1978 that it “will undoubtedly prove extremely worrisome to Moscow.” For this keen analysis American taxpayers must pay? (And who can forget the CIA concluding about 10 years ago that Iran had given up its drive to develop nuclear weapons. Was anyone fired for that assessment?)
The left loves to remind us of the CIA’s assurances that WMDs in Iraq was a “slam dunk,” but my favorite example of CIA cluelessness was its 1986 assessment that real per capital income in East Germany was higher than real per capita income in West Germany ($10,440 versus $10,220)—a proposition so absurd that you needed to have an Ivy League education to believe it. But that’s just the problem; any taxi driver in West Berlin could have told you this was nonsense, but the CIA didn’t have any taxi drivers on their payroll, preferring sophisticated Ivy League graduates instead. This misprision turned out to be a cause of alarm and dismay in the eastern bloc. East Germany’s chief spymaster Markus Wolf later confessed: “For a time in the late 1970s and 1980s the quality of the American agents was so poor and their work so haphazard that our masters began to ask fearfully whether Washington had stopped taking East Germany seriously.”
Richard Nixon hated the CIA, and they reciprocated that hatred in ways that are still probably not fully known. Reagan’s great CIA director, William Casey, knew the CIA was dysfunctional and mostly went around it in his drive to undermine the Soviet Union. Another excerpt from my second Reagan book:
What Casey found was a stifling bureaucracy; Robert Gates wrote that it had slowly turned into the Department of Agriculture. Casey had been around Washington long enough to know that the CIA bureaucracy would not be susceptible to sweeping reform schemes; he had said as much at his confirmation hearings, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee “This is not the time for another bureaucratic shake-up of the CIA.” He also had the requisite distrust of the CIA’s inertia. The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky recalled visiting Casey with a proposal for nasty deed against the USSR. “It’s just great,” Casey told him, “but let me give you some advice: don’t tell anyone in the CIA about it; they’ll screw it up.” He focused instead on trying to get specific divisions of the CIA to conceive of their mission in radically new ways. Casey and Gates did shake up CIA analysts when they announced that henceforth the accuracy of individual reports would be taken into account when it came time for promotions.
The basic problem of the CIA is that, like any other bureaucracy, it will tend to send up the kind of assessments that it thinks its political masters want. Hence the Vietnam-era findings that were always congenial to LBJ (until they weren’t congenial), etc. The latest CIA assessment that Russia influenced our election may be true, but it is also highly convenient for what the Obama Administration would like to hear just now, no?
So if Trump really wants to “drain the swamp,” maybe he should revive an idea first proposed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan back in the 1990s—abolish the CIA. And Trump can claim it is a bipartisan idea: Moynihan isn’t the only Democrat who has made the suggestion. Bernie Sanders has been for abolishing the CIA. It would be fun to watch liberal critics of the CIA twist themselves into knots if Trump proposed this. Pass the popcorn.