The CIA is not to be trusted

Don't be fooled by partisanship

The CIA has a complicated history.
(Image credit: AP Photo/David Goldman)

One of the more darkly amusing things to watch in modern politics is the rapid see-sawing of public opinion around questions of partisan advantage. Thus as Vladimir Putin was perceived to be a friend to American conservatives, his favorability rating among Republicans improved by some 56 points nearly overnight.

But another even more ludicrous example is the skyrocketing trust in the Central Intelligence Agency among liberals, as that agency has gotten into a political tussle with President-elect Donald Trump. In this case, reverse-engineering political ideology around partisan advantage is actively dangerous. The CIA — and the security apparatus in general — is not to be trusted.

This development comes due to the CIA's apparent conclusion — via the usual method of "anonymous leaks to journalists" — that Putin's hacking efforts were directed at helping Trump get elected. Unsurprisingly, Trump rejected this conclusion, and his transition team is said to be mulling a major reorganization of the intelligence bureaucracy (though they have since denied it). Former CIA director James Woolsey has quit the transition team.

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Partisan mechanisms kicked obligingly into gear, and approval of the CIA among Democrats has improved by 36 points — putting favorability higher among Democrats than Republicans for the first time since the poll has been conducted.

So what's the problem here? Let's review some history.

The CIA's brutal incompetence goes back virtually to the very moment of its founding. They spent most of the Cold War doing stuff like air-dropping thousands of people into China and Russia to get murdered, overthrowing foreign governments, spying on domestic dissidents, feeding random people LSD, screwing around with "psychic" charlatans, and so on.

Recent history is no exception. Most notoriously, on orders from the very top levels of the Bush administration, the CIA started and operated an illegal torture program which killed at least one person, and probably many more, in its custody. It provided no good intelligence and seriously damaged the agency's operational effectiveness. Then when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence attempted to conduct a mere investigation of that program, the CIA spied on the staffers conducting the investigation and reported them to the Department of Justice, in what Sen. Dianne Feinstein called "a potential effort to intimidate this staff."

In many ways the incompetence of the CIA is a real shame, and not just due to its long history of atrocities. The American presidency badly needs quality information, and far too often nobody in the various intelligence agencies has been able to provide it. The CIA is particularly hamstrung in this respect, as quality intelligence work often plays second fiddle to the sexier task of overseas operations (or running the drone assassin fleet).

Why those two tasks were combined under one roof is anybody's guess. Indeed, a total overhaul of the spaghetti tangle of security agencies is desperately needed — it would be a great idea, if it weren't being done by Trump.

But overall, it is unquestionable that the CIA (and the rest of the security apparatus) is a lawless force of illiberal despotism. Perhaps the greatest moral stain on President Obama's legacy is how he backed the CIA to the hilt in is fight with the Senate, and publicly made garbage excuses for its lawbreaking and torture.

There isn't much else that can be done about Trump's fight with the CIA in either direction, of course. Democrats are all but powerless at every level of government. But it's still critical to remember that there is no way that the agency could "beat" Trump that would not lead to a far worse outcome.

On the one hand, the CIA might blackmail Trump into submitting to its demands. On the other, it might be co-opted to be used against his political enemies. Neither option is good for liberalism that isn't mere Obama-worship.

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