Pondering Intelligence, if Any, at Intelligence Agencies

Fred Reed
Issue CCLXXVII - February 14, 2011
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The following is a somewhat amplified letter to a friend. I know I've said some of this before.


Permit me respectfully to disagree about the potency of American intelligence agencies. It seems to me that they are clowns, incompetent at their assigned work but adept at causing grave problems for the United States. Their almost comic ineptitude lies hidden behind a veil of romantic secrecy a la James Bond. But look at their known record.

Your belief that a few jets and Marines would have changed the outcome in the Bay of Pigs rests on the characteristic inability of US intel to grasp how other people look at things. Cubans hated Batista, did not yet hate Castro to whatever extent they ever would, and the exiles used to invade the island were agents of the people Cubans hated most — that is, the rich property owners who fled Castro. The Americans, remember, had always supported Batista, as they had supported every ugly dictator in Latin America. America itself is detested throughout South America. No warm welcome was in the cards.

Americans still have no understanding of how other people work, and therefore of what they are likely to do. I remember that in Afghanistan the Pentagon was going to conquer Marjah and give it a “government in a box.” That is, the Afghans were going to fall in love with brutal invaders who destroyed most of their city. Fat chance. Iraq would be a cakewalk? A friend of mine  Jack McGeorge  on Blix’s team briefed Langley on WMD before the invasions of Iraq. I asked him whether the CIA really believed the cakewalk theory or were lying for political reasons. They really believed it, he said.

American intel has never been much good. Reflect. In 1941 tensions were high with Japan, which was known to have a large, modern fleet and better pilots with better airplanes than ours. On December 7, naval intelligence hadn’t bothered to know where that fleet was—with disastrous results.

In 1950 in Korea, signs of an upcoming attack were thick on the ground, but US intelligence didn’t notice—with disastrous results. Nor did it notice when the PLA was about to enter the war—with disastrous results.

As noted above, in 1959 the CIA made a complete botch of the attack on Cuba. Again: the Children’s Agency thought that the Cubans would rise against Castro. The results were politically disastrous.

In 1961, the U2 got shot down over Russia. It was not up to the CIA’s standards of catastrophe, being merely embarrassing. I suppose it is too much to expect perfect consistency.

In 1975 came the adventure of the Glomar Explorer, in which the CIA wasted a half a billion green ones, which was money in those days, in secret communion with a totally lunatic Howard Hughes, to fail to retrieve most of an ancient Soviet submarine that the Navy didn’t want.

In 1967 the Israelis attacked the spy ship Liberty and killed 142 sailors, because the intelligence community was too stupid to protect its ships. In 1968 the North Koreans grabbed the spy ship Pueblo, whose highly trained crew didn’t manage to destroy their secret thingamawhatsses, because the intel community was too stupid to protect its ships. In 2007 the Chinese forced down an NSA spy plane, which, as usual, didn’t destroy its secrets.

Vietnam. Here we have another example of the intelligence geek’s consistent inability to do what should be a primary duty: to tell the government the likely consequences of a given policy—with disastrous consequences. Washington blundered into that war with no idea that the Viets might fight, that the war might cost a decade, 60,000 dead soldiers, and eventually be lost.  Had Langley and Meade not read Bernard Fall, or heard of Dien Bien Phu?

During Vietnam, there was the Son Tay raid. Son Tay was a suburb of   Hanoi where a large number of American prisoners were held. The military made a brilliant raid that would have gotten them out, except that intel hadn’t noticed that the prisoners had been moved to another location. For the prisoners the results were disastrous, since they would not get another chance.

But the supreme contribution of the spookoweeners to that war was to be taken utterly by surprise by Tet, the queen-sacrifice move that lost the war for the US. Disastrouser and disastrouser.

In the Yugoslavian mess, the US managed to bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade because it didn’t know where it was. Gilbert and Sullivan. Check the telephone book, maybe?

The spooks were astonished when the Berlin Wall went up, and again when it came down. They did not predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, their principal object of study. What do these guys do all day?

They did not detect the pack of Saudis who dropped those towers in New York—with disastrous results. Nor had they detected the earlier attempt on the towers with a truck bomb.

Iraq? Again, they had no idea how Arabs might react. I guess they had never heard of Israel and the Palestinians. They figured it would be a walk in the park, with disastrous results.

They seem to have been equally clueless, or maybe just unable to overcome the Pentagon’s excessive estimation of itself, in the case of Afghanistan, again with disastrous results. Washington did not remotely suspect that it would get bogged down in a decade of a war, which it would probably lose. Maybe they hadn’t gotten around to reading about the Russians’ experience of Afghanistan.

They have been utterly ineffective in finding Bin Laden, who I figure is living in some luxurious marble basement in Riyadh. Now we have Egypt, which as best I can tell took the spooks by surprise—with serious and potentially disastrous results. It looks like the usual thing, astonishing technotoys, too few feet on the ground, and no faint idea of how people work.

Why the cluelessness? My take: Unending emphasis on technology, technology, technology instead of languages, back streets, and really understanding the culture, something that Americans seem almost incapable of doing. Second, a peculiarly impenetrable frame of mind convinced of its own rightness, of being of a wisdom superior to that of those outside the agencies by virtue of being secret, and therefore impervious to criticism from without. Third, a willingness to be polygraphed, spied upon, to have dossiers compiled on their friends and lovers and in general to accept a degree of rigid control that repels the kind of people who understand the world. Add, with many, an us-agin-them, almost Cold War mentality and, in the CIA at least, a tendency to attract cowboys more interested in secret missions than knowing what is going on abroad. They also usually have a profound distaste for the press, although the people who know most about, say, the Mideast are reporters who have covered the region for thirty years—Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Eric Margolis—without being crippled by having to have cover jobs at the embassy.

Pricey, full of themselves, murderous in effect if only sometimes in intention, without adult supervison. I need a drink.



The book to read, if you really want to know how incompetent the CIA is, is A Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner. Written entirely from interdies with CIA people and ds-class documents, no blind quotes. Worth every penny.

Fred Reed has worked on the staff of the Army Times, The Washingtonian, Soldier of Fortune, Federal Computer Week, and The Washington Times, and has been published in Playboy, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Harper's, National Review, Signal, and Air&Space. He has served in the Marines, worked as a police writer, technology editor, military specialist, and as an authority on mercenary soldiers. See Fred's homepage, Fred On Everything.

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