It’s rare that one is able to solve two profoundly troubling societal problems with one quick fix, but I feel I’ve done it! Well, in a metaphorical, Swiftian, satirical “Modest Proposal” way. I suspect that most Slate readers will be aware that Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century “Modest Proposal” to solve the Irish famine by encouraging starving parents to eat their children was meant as satire, right? Because when I ran my own modest
proposal by a journalist friend, she took it a little too seriously, and heatedly informed me, “That’s the worst idea I ever heard!” That’s sort of the point! When things are bad, the only way to make the situation crystal-clear is to show how difficult it would be to come up with an idea that is ludicrously worse.
On the other hand, as they say in cheesy movies, “Sounds crazy, but it just might work!”
So: My modest proposal to solve America’s “intelligence” failures is to fire the entire CIA and our other many tragically inept intelligence agencies and outsource all intelligence operations to investigative reporters downsized by the collapse of the newspaper business. Thereby improving our “intelligence capability” (it can’t possibly get worse!) and giving a paycheck to some worthy and skilled investigative types—yes, some sketchy, crazed, paranoid (but in a colorful, obsessive, yet often highly effective way) reporters who once made the journalism profession proud, exciting, and useful, not boring stenography for the power elites.
How bad are things in U.S. intelligence? I refer you to a Jan. 20 Reuters report on the Congressional investigation into the failure to “connect the dots” on the Christmas bomber: the guy who—as just about everybody in the world except U.S. intelligence knew—was trying to blow up a plane. Why?
A senior counterterrorism official said on Wednesday his agency lacks “Google-like” search capability that could have identified the suspect in the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing. The National Counterterrorism Center, the agency charged with reviewing disparate data to protect against attacks, does not have a computer search engine that could have checked for various spellings of the alleged bomber’s name and his birthplace in Nigeria, the center’s chief told a Senate hearing on security reform. “We do not have that exact capacity,” said Michael Leiter, adding that the agency is working on solutions that could be in place within weeks.
Don’t you love “that exact capacity”? Sort of trying to say they almost have the capacity but not … exactly. Remember the Hertz commercial in which a junior exec gets some loser car and has to say that it’s “not exactly” what he could have gotten from Hertz? I see Michael Leiter pulling up in a DayGlo-painted clown car, his crack team of Google-like computer experts in full clown makeup emerging with their Commodore 64s at the ready saying, “We almost identified the would-be terror bomber, but … not exactly.”
That’s the Michael Leiter, by the way, who is our Supreme Chief of Connecting the Dots in our gazillionith reorganization of U.S. intelligence. Yes, that would be the same Michael Leiter who decided after the Christmas bombing attempt to proceed with his previously booked ski vacation. Hey, the “Google-like” capacity wouldn’t be available for weeks, so why not spend some cozy time at a ski resort with all the fixings, maybe even some after-dinner Pong or Donkey Kong.
Why this guy hasn’t been summarily fired, not just for the vacation (hope the trails were fluffy!) but for the lack of a “Google-like” search capacity for U.S. intelligence is baffling to anyone with any intelligence. And I think it’s sufficient evidence that my modest proposal should be taken more seriously. After thinking about my proposal for a few days during my ski vacation, I’ve come up with some bells and whistles for it.
I wouldn’t stop with firing our entire intelligence team (leave behind the slide rules, though, will you guys, before you turn out the lights—or blow out the candles?) and outsourcing their jobs to downsized print journalists. I’d include the unfairly down-played and down-market wings of media that get no respect, like The Enquirer. (Who knew Hugo Chavez had a love child?) I’d enlist the legion of bloggers and even celebrity-gossip Web sites to join in my new U.S. intelligence team. Do you have any doubt that it would take TMZ less than 48 hours to come up with an (alleged) Mullah Omar sex tape? Or for Gawker Stalker to spot OBL at a Kandahar bazaar. Or for Page Six to get the details on the “gymnastic” skills of Vladimir Putin’s 20-somethng hottie and link her somehow to Tila Tequila?
I know: J-school ethicists wouldn’t approve of this, and I agree with Glenn Greenwald’s argument that journalists shouldn’t get mixed up in government business, and I’ve practiced what I preached. (I once turned down a CIA offer to deliver a lecture about Hitler and the nature of evil at their Langley headquarters.) But, hey, do I need to reiterate that this is a “modest proposal” satire remember.
And I wouldn’t limit my recruitment to the new CIA (renamed the Creative Intelligence Agency) to just the downsized. Why not unleash some of the still-employed fearsome legends of investigative reporting, like Sy Hersh or Jane Mayer, on our nation’s foes? They invariably have ways of outsmarting the CIA’s rudimentary secrecy protections, publishing leaks from inside sources. The warrantless wiretaps, the “black flight” illegal renditions of suspects to torture-friendly countries, the “enhanced interrogation” torture program itself, you name it—if the CIA’s got a secret, the New York Times and the Washington Post have it a day later.
These reporters have managed to infiltrate the CIA far better than the CIA has infiltrated any terrorist organization. The CIA has compiled a history of failure so replete with lethal blunders that even when a self-proclaimed mole within al-Qaida told them he could get al-Qaida’s No. 2 man, al-Zawahiri, they credulously and, alas, tragically got the go-ahead to trust him and ended up losing seven lives because they were so eager to end their relentless run of defeats.
Newsmen have taken such a beating lately from the likes of corporate consultant-racket profiteers such as Jeff Jarvis, who get paid handsomely to tell the executive drones who hire them as consultants that the collapse of the newspaper industry wasn’t their fault. No, it was somehow the fault of the reporters they had to fire to maintain their perks, so that these execs don’t have to carry anything on their conscience about it. Just keep paying Jeff to tell them fairy tales about the future, and someday they’ll find an online business model that really, really works (for Jeff, anyway).
Indeed, my modest proposal might be a morale booster to show the world just how resourceful and skillful and “creative” U.S. reporters can be. I’m not suggesting a Pulitzer Prize for spying. Maybe a Congressional Medal of Honor though. (Kidding!)
Let’s face it: The only good secrets our intelligence agencies have are quickly scooped up and published by ace investigative reporters. In fact, any group of people randomly selected from the phone book (or Facebook) could have compiled a better record than our intelligence agencies over the past half-century. They’ve made us a laughingstock.
Do I need to recount the dismal, abysmal, horrible, very bad record of U.S. intelligence agencies over the past half-century? They may as well have been run by our worst enemies. (Indeed, some paranoia-inclined analysts believe they were run by double agents and moles, but my inclination is to follow the maxim: “Never believe in conspiracies when sheer incompetence provides an explanation.”)
You want to see incompetence? Look at the record (or read Tim Weiner’s encyclopedic compilation of CIA failures, Legacy of Ashes, for a start). After their hall-of-fame-worthy bungling of the Bay of Pigs, CIA incompetents almost got us into a global nuclear holocaust over the Cuban Missile Crisis, when they assured the Pentagon in October 1962 that the Russians had not yet armed their nukes in Cuba. This turned out to be totally false: The nukes were assembled, armed, and aimed, and Khrushchev had given operational control to Castro already, so that the invasion the Joint Chiefs almost talked JFK into would have almost certainly been an instant Armageddon. Heckuva job, Langley!
Then there’s the endemic problem with “connecting the dots”—which dates back to the veritable dot matrix that Lee Harvey Oswald presented, one that the CIA ignored (or siloed as the fashionable new management jargon has it). After all, consider Oswald: a guy who defects to the Soviet Union proclaiming his belief in communism and hatred of America, then redefects to the United States, where he gets deeply involved in violent post-Bay of Pigs CIA-financed intrigue, proceeds to threatens an FBI man who tries to question him, buys a rifle, and happens to work within gun scope range of the presidential motorcade. Nothing much here for the CIA to be concerned about or communicate to the Secret Service watch list, right?
Did all of this have something to do with the CIA being run by elite, WASP, Skull and Bones types who were pitifully easy marks for the darker-skinned people they were trying to control? Yes. But there was also a kind of Higher Stupidity at the CIA that masked itself as “complexity.”
You can see this in the whole “molehunt” madness initiated by legendary (for paranoid delusion) James Jesus Angleton, the chief of the CIA’s counter intelligence division for two misbegotten decades, who was made a fool of by Kim Philby, the British KGB operative who was perhaps the most obvious mole in history but who appealed to Angleton’s Anglophilia, a pathology of most of the upper-class twits who ran the CIA from the beginning. After Philby made a fool of him, Angleton went mad, turned the CIA into a place where the paranoid inmates ran the asylum in their insane hunt for a nonexistent mole, a foolish crusade that utterly paralyzed the agency’s chief mission: spying on the Soviets. And so at the height of the Cold War, the CIA had no intelligence it trusted about the Soviets.
Then, when it turned out there were no CIA moles during Angleton’s watch, his hypervigilance discredited ordinary, rational vigilance and allowed a blundering creep like Aldrich Ames, a real mole, to steal every secret the CIA had for Soviet cash and cause the death of an untold number of our operatives in Moscow.
And then there was the Team A/Team B fiasco, another profoundly dangerous screw-up. It wasn’t a bad idea in theory. George H.W. Bush, head of the CIA under President Ford, was persuaded that there was doubt about CIA estimates of Soviet missile progress, doubt raised by perennial “missile gap” alarmists. He appointed a team of outside “experts” to investigate and offer an alternative analysis, beyond the agency’s.
They became known as “Team B” to the CIA’s in-house “Team A,” and they produced what turned out to be a totally inaccurate overestimate of Soviet capabilities and intentions. (See Cold War historian’s Pavel Podvig’s demolition of Team B’s conclusions in the light of history.) Nonetheless, in a kind of forerunner to the WMD fiasco, Team B’s paranoid analysis became the basis for the $1 trillion arms buildup during the Reagan administration to match the Soviet’s illusory gains. Paradoxically, Team B’s overestimation and the insane overspending that resulted may have made them a key factor in causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. The CIA’s stunning record of ineptness led to Team B’s epoch-making mistake. As Dylan wrote, “There’s no success like failure.” Though, he added, “Failure’s no success at all.”
The CIA’s post Cold War failures are all too well-known from the WMD fiasco. (CIA head George Tenet famously told the president it was “a slam dunk” they were there. Maybe by “slam dunk” he was thinking of water-boarding and other supereffective “enhanced interrogation” methods that were shamefully adopted by the intelligence community.) And, of course, the entire intelligence community had a hand in producing the now-discredited 2007 National Intelligence estimate on the Iranian nuclear weapons program, which left the credulous media with the impression: nuthin’ goin’ on.
A record like that, an unprecedented, massive, relentless record of failure deserves only one response: accountability. We’ve got to fire them all. At the very least, this action would say that failure won’t be the new normal forever. But who to replace them with? And who to handle the transition?
My modest proposal may have been engendered by rereading something I wrote a while ago in Harper’s (“The Shadow of the Mole,” October 1983, subscription only) about the whole Angleton mole madness which mentioned a little noticed Washington conference on “intelligence,” sponsored by a shadowy group called “The Consortium for the Study of Intelligence.” The conference produced a volume, Intelligence Requirements for the 1980s. In it was a paper by veteran espionage journalist (and Slate contributor) Edward Jay Epstein, who I think should play a key role in managing the transition after we fire the CIA en masse.
Epstein’s essay had the forbidding academic-sounding title “Incorporating Analysis of Foreign Governments’ Deception Into the U.S. Analytical System.” But buried within it was an important distinction between “Type A Deception,” which involved manipulation of foreign governments’ perception of our overt behavior, and “Type B Deception,” which “purports to emanate from the highest levels of decision making”—and might involve journalists staging deception—giving the foe a false impression of our secret, esoteric strategy. I’m not doing its complexity justice.
But there was a key passage in the essay that startled me because it broke out of the gray, bureaucratic prose of most of the volume to raise an imaginative, even cinematic idea: a “Type B Deception” team. “It might conceivably employ functional paranoids, confidence men, magicians, film scenarists or whomever seemed appropriate to simulate whatever deception plots seemed plausible.”
“Functional paranoids?” “Confidence men.” He might as well be describing the mind and character of our better investigative reporters! I’m not strictly an investigative reporter myself, though I’ve done a lot of it, and I know a lot of them and I think I know the mind-set. They’d be a perfect fit for replacing our discredited intelligence community.
My first step would be to contact the IRE (the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization) and see whether we can scare up some volunteers. Then I’d ask Ed to be my (wartime) consigliore. We will save America from its external enemies! We will end abusive practices and endless bungles! We will put the dangerous, worse-than-useless CIA out to pasture.
That’s my modest proposal.