Opinion

Time to scrap the CIA

The agency does almost nothing right — and now it's a direct threat to American democracy

Back in March, I wrote that the United States was embroiled in a full-blown constitutional crisis. In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accused the CIA of monitoring the computers of her staffers, who were working on a scathing report on the CIA's torture program. It raised fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the agency: Without oversight, secret spying cannot possibly be justified in a democracy.

In part, Feinstein's speech was a response to the agency asking the Department of Justice to prosecute her staffers for allegedly stealing classified documents. Given the incentives in play, and the CIA's wretched recent history, I concluded this was an attempt to sandbag the Senate investigation, discredit the report should it be released, and prevent a DOJ investigation. Feinstein herself described it as "a potential effort to intimidate this staff."

This effort is paying dividends. According to McClatchy, the DOJ will not investigate Feinstein's claims of illegal CIA spying on her staffers:

"The department carefully reviewed the matters referred to us and did not find sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal investigation," said Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr. [McClatchyDC]

I for one find that almost impossible to believe. The path of political least resistance was to split the difference between competing claims and decline to prosecute either one, probably just as the CIA wanted. Effectively, DOJ is running interference for the agency, just like they did when they declined to prosecute Jose Rodriguez for destroying evidence of war crimes.

The ball is now back in the Senate's court. Clearly, President Obama and the rest of the executive branch are going to be no help whatsoever in protecting the legitimacy of American democracy. It's time to start thinking big: Congress ought to scrap the CIA. They created the agency in 1947 with the National Security Act; they can reverse that whenever they choose.

The fact that the agency is gnawing at the roots of American democracy in the service of fighting a report about their war crimes is one reason to ditch it all together. Another is that for basically their entire existence, they have completely sucked at their job.

-The CIA is supposed to gather information about what is happening in the world. Here is a partial list of things the CIA failed to predict:

-The first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949

-The invasion of South Korea in 1950

-Installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962

-The Iranian revolution in 1979

-The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989

-9/11

-Iraq's lack of WMDs in 2003

And that isn't the half of it. If you read Tim Weiner's sweeping history of the agency, A Legacy of Ashes, you find a nearly uninterrupted litany of failure, ignorance, and buffoonish incompetence. Scrapping it could quite plausibly improve American security.

What would replace the CIA? Well, given that much of it has evolved into a paramilitary drone strike operation, that part can be folded into the Pentagon, which also has its own intelligence branch. There would still be the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaisance Office, the General Defense Intelligence Program, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Program. If we were concerned about developing a better intelligence collection system, these could conceivably be reorganized under a single heading, or just handed off altogether to the military.

But the major objective is to get rid of a basically worthless agency that has become a clear threat to America's democratic system. Trying to figure out an ideal future is less important than dealing with that problem.

Naturally, this kind of bold defense of its prerogatives is hard to imagine with this Congress. It doing anything at all, on any subject, is hard to imagine. But this really ought to be a hair-on-fire emergency for every single member of Congress. The constitutional crisis didn't end — the CIA just appears to be winning it. Representatives and senators are supposed to be the direct representatives of the American people, and the CIA just spat on the very idea that they are entitled to conduct meaningful oversight. A legislature that took democracy seriously wouldn't stand for it.

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