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T. Clancey's CIA

How We Got Here First we crippled the CIA. Then we blamed it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2001
Copyright 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

We know now that America has been the victim of a large, well-planned, and well-executed terrorist act. The parameters are yet to be fully explored, but that won't stop the usual suspects from pontificating (and, yes, that includes me) on what happened and what needs to be done as a result. A few modest observations: * As I write this we only know the rough outlines of what has taken place. We do not know exactly who the perpetrators were, though we have heard from Vice President Dick Cheney that there is "no question" that Osama bin Laden had a role. But many groups may have been involved, and we do not know their motivation, or for whom or for what particular objective they worked.

* "Don't know" means "don't know" and nothing more.

Absent hard information, talking about who it must have been and what we need to do about it is a waste of air and energy. To discern the important facts, we have the Federal Bureau of Investigation as our principal investigative agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency (along with National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency) as our principal foreign- intelligence services. Getting the most important information is their job, not the job of the news media, which will only repeat what they are told. Gathering this information will take time, because we need to get it right.

* Terrorism is a political act, performed for political objectives.

The general aim of terrorism is to force changes in the targeted society through the shock value of the crime committed. Therefore, if we make radical changes in how our country operates, the bad guys win. We do not want that to happen. Whoever planned this operation is watching us right now, and they are probably having a pretty good laugh. We can't stop that. What we can do is to maintain that which they most hate, which is a free society. We've worked too hard to become what we are, and we can't allow a few savages to change it for us.

Next, our job is to take a step back, take a deep breath and get to work finding out who it was, where they are, and what to do about it. Terrorism is a crime under the civil law when committed by domestic terrorists; it can be an act of war when committed by foreigners. For domestic criminals we have the FBI and police. For acts of war we have our intelligence community and the military. In either case we have well-trained people to do the work. If we let them do their job, and give them the support they need, the job will get done as reliably as gravity. The foreign-source option seems the most likely at this time. The first line of defense in such a case is the intelligence community. The CIA is an agency of about 18,000 employees, of whom perhaps 800 are field-intelligence officers--that is, the people who go out on the street and learn what people are thinking, not how many tanks they have parked outside (we have satellites to photograph those).

I've been saying for a lot of years that this number is too small. American society doesn't love its CIA, for the same reason that it doesn't always love its cops. We too often regard them as a threat to ourselves rather than our enemies. Perhaps these incidents will make us rethink that.

The best defense against terrorist incidents is to prevent them fromhappening. You do that by finding out what a potential enemy is thinking before he is able to act. What the field intelligence officers do is no different from what Special Agent Joe Pistone of the FBI did when he infiltrated the mafia under the cover name of Donnie Brasco.

The purpose of these operations is to find out what people are thinking and talking about. However good your satellites are, they cannot see inside a human head. Only people can go and do that. But America, and especially the American news media, does not love the CIA in general and the field spooks in particular.

As recently as two weeks ago, CBS's "60 Minutes" regaled us with the hoary old chestnut about how the CIA undermined the leftist government of Chile three decades ago. The effect of this media coverage, always solicitous to leftist governments, is to brand the CIA an antiprogressive agency that does Bad Things. In fact, the CIA is a government agency, subject to the political whims of whoever sits in the White House and Congress. The CIA does what the government of which it is a part tells it to do. Whatever evil the CIA may have done was the result of orders from above.

The Chilean event and others (for example, attempts to remove Fidel Castro from the land of the living, undertaken during the presidency of JFK, rather more rarely reported because only good came from Camelot) caused the late Sen. Frank Church to help gut the CIA's Directorate of Operations in the 1970s. What he carelessly left undisturbed then fell afoul of the Carter administration's hit man, Stansfield Turner. That capability has never been replaced.

It is a lamentably common practice in Washington and elsewhere to shoot people in the back and then complain when they fail to win the race. The loss of so many lives in New York and Washington is now called an "intelligence failure," mostly by those who crippled the CIA in the first place, and by those who celebrated the loss of its invaluable capabilities.

What a pity that they cannot stand up like adults now and say: "See, we gutted our intelligence agencies because we don't much like them, and we can bury thousands of American citizens as an indirect result."

This, of course, will not happen, because those who inflict their aesthetic on the rest of us are never around to clean up the resulting mess, though they seem to enjoy further assaulting those whom they crippled to begin with. Call it the law of unintended consequences.

The intelligence community was successfully assaulted for actions taken under constitutionally mandated orders, and with nothing left to replace what was smashed, warnings we might have had to prevent this horrid event never came. Of course, neither I nor anyone else can prove that the warnings would have come, and I will not invoke the rhetoric of the political left on so sad an occasion as this.

But the next time America is in a fight, it is well to remember tying one's own arm is unlikely to assist in preserving, protecting and defending what is ours.

Mr. Clancy is a novelist.

Copyright 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.