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A Question of Standing:
The History of the CIA

by rhodri jeffreys-jones
oxford, 320 pages, $27.95

A secret ­government institution will always occupy an uncomfortable and uncertain place within an open society. In the United States, this tension has led to the creation of a parallel world in which secrecy is the norm and importance is measured by level of classification. This world both sucks in and regurgitates huge amounts of information, but that word itself is felt to be in bad taste, almost taboo. We prefer the fraught term “intelligence,” defined as information we should probably keep hidden from our enemies. Since everyone is an enemy until proven otherwise, intelligence, both raw and finished, ultimately means information an elected government can legally keep hidden from its own electorate. That’s the glamor and the burden of this mysterious world.

Few people get rich off intelligence. The 2022 budget for civilian intelligence programs totaled $65.7 billion, chickenfeed by U.S. government standards. (Medicare, to pick a budget item out of the air, gobbled up $767 billion.) A few contractors may rise to affluence, but intelligence officers don’t go into the work for the money. In my experience, they are the most mission-­obsessed U.S. government workers not in uniform. Despite the Hollywood treatment and super-cool “shaken, not stirred” image, it’s a ­decidedly middle-class existence. Aldrich Ames, a “mole” or double agent, was caught because he maintained, thanks to Russian largesse, a lifestyle conspicuously beyond what his GS-14 salary could afford.

The world of secrets—somewhat wistfully known as the “intelligence community”—is home to ­many agencies, but the gaudy Trump Tower on the block is and always has been the CIA. Given its combination of secrecy and notoriety, the CIA inevitably appears to the open world as a series of contradictory myths. For some, it is composed of ­torturers who love to overthrow democratic governments (in one film from the nineties, a character says, “I’m CIA and I knock down airliners for breakfast”). For others, it is made up of dashing agents on horseback who defeated the abominable Taliban and rescued U.S. diplomats from the clutches of the ayatollahs. Many agree with the late Senator Daniel Patrick ­Moynihan, who felt the Agency was a bungling, useless bureaucracy and introduced a bill to abolish it entirely. Just as many consider the CIA to be a sort of Eye of Sauron, seeing all and knowing all. In Latin America, for decades, it was universally believed that not a sparrow fell unless it was ordained by “the Company.”

Each myth has a basis in fact, and the case can be made that everything depends on which part of the invisible elephant one happens to be grasping. In my opinion, the difficulty with assessing the CIA’s performance goes deeper than that: There’s a fundamental confusion about what the ­organization is supposed to do. Is it spying? ­Covert action? Influence-­peddling? Information-­gathering? Prophesying future developments? CIA staffers are exceptionally ­mission-driven—but what, exactly, is the mission? Since the end of the Cold War, the confusion has seeped into the seventh floor at Langley. Even as the internet was ­unleashing a tsunami of open information of tremendous “intelligence value,” the director could be heard ­repeating the refrain, “Our job is stealing ­secrets.”

Such a variable-geometry mission makes any comprehensive history of the organization problematic. Depending on one’s perspective, the same event can look like success or failure. The War in Ukraine, for example, can be portrayed as a rousing intelligence triumph: The Agency clearly penetrated Russian intentions and delivered the necessary early warnings. But it was also an appalling intelligence failure, since Agency analysts, caught up in the conventional wisdom, had no clue how the war would unfold—no idea that the Ukrainians would hold fast against Putin’s war machine. That’s an A+ for warning but an F for forecasting. Which matters most?

The wisest move is probably to undertake a thematic approach, drilling down a specific intelligence challenge or discipline as a way to attain some depth. I believe this is what ­Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones has attempted in A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA, in which, as the title suggests, the grand theme is that the Agency’s “effectiveness has depended on its standing.” “Standing” is a mushy word, however. It is too often used as a proxy for “­importance” or “influence,” which turns the grand theme into a tautology—the ­Agency is effective when it is ­influential, which is to say, seen as effective.

To get his theme beyond the level of trivial truth, Jeffreys-Jones needed concreteness. He has opted for inclusiveness instead. Though he rightly notes the importance of the CIA’s relationship with the White House, he seems to give the same weight to the Agency’s standing with Congress and with American public opinion, even to its “standing abroad.” These are pieces in a ­Rubik’s Cube that seldom align. Which matters most?

The reputation of the world of secrets is a value judgment, implying a standard. Jeffreys-Jones brings to the task a conventional liberal sensibility, a pedestrian writing style, and a dogged determination to heap before the reader as ­many facts as his subject can bear. He begins with the prehistory of American intelligence, unearthing curious tidbits that, in some ways, make this the most fascinating part of the book. George ­Washington, experienced in running spy rings during the Revolutionary War, asked for and received from Congress a “Contingent Fund of Foreign Intercourse,” which despite the provocative name paid for his administration’s espionage activities. Lincoln established the Secret Service by executive order, never troubling himself about­ ­legislative approval. Woodrow Wilson established an intelligence coordination bureau within the State Department that called itself “­­U-1”; apparently, one of its recruits was British novelist W. Somerset Maugham.

The foundational moment came with the National Security Act of 1947. Given the ineptitude of our current political leadership, it is amazing to recall how, in a single effort of creation, the titans of the post-war world erected a security framework that would endure for half a century. The National Security Act established the Defense Department, the National Security Council, and a civilian CIA that would be “central,” that is, a hub to all the spokes in the Intelligence Community. The spur to this burst of institution-building was of course the rising threat from the Soviet Union.

The CIA is a child of the Cold War. The imprinting and orienting mission was the fight against world communism. Despite the occasional faceplant, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Agency played a largely capable part in that struggle. The question became how to dis-imprint and reorient when the struggle was over. A Question of Standing does a good job of conveying the confusion that followed the sudden collapse of the existential enemy—an event that surprised the wise heads at the CIA as much as everyone else. That was the time of Moynihan’s complaint, when zeroing out the Agency could be ­contemplated.

But the real trauma of the end of the Cold War was internal and structural. An organization that spends decades fighting the same enemy must align its movements, staff, and structures to that enemy, and in the end, by a strange inversion, comes to resemble the enemy. The director of the CIA was something like a first party secretary, directorate heads formed a Politburo, and “­coordination” imposed a party line on intelligence. Reforms were attempted in the nineties and in the second Bush administration, but it’s tough to go against your DNA. The maladies that destroyed the Soviet Union—blind obedience to process and protocol, bureaucratic inertia, lack of innovation—afflicted the CIA into the twenty-first century.

By the middle chapters of A Question of Standing, the author has been overwhelmed by his subject matter. We seem to bounce from one crisis or scandal to another, all equally dire and apocalyptic. Ronald Reagan’s Iran–­Contra mess, for example, is described as “one of the ­twentieth century’s great scandals,” even though most Americans today would have trouble recognizing the phrase—as opposed to, say, “Watergate” or “Monica Lewinsky.” The theme of standing gives way to the theme of falling, with moral and political failure recurring from a tragic necessity. “The CIA would promise to be good,” Jeffreys-Jones writes, “but secretly be bad.”

To an indeterminate degree, however, the perception of constant scandal is an artifact of the trade. Obvious intelligence failures trigger a noisy process of oversight, review, debate, and attempted fixes. Vast amounts of once-classified information are made available to the historian; the methodical Jeffreys-Jones, I feel certain, must have absorbed every scrap. Intelligence successes, by contrast, rarely make the news, and are shared on the famous “need to know” basis to avoid compromising sources and methods. We need not absolve the CIA of its many missteps and abuses to accept that much of its history has been publicly bad but secretly good. That’s the nature of the game.

I believe the confusion at the heart of this book stems from a fatally flawed thesis. Though the approval of Congress, the applause of the public, and the respect of foreign nations are evidently helpful, the Agency rises and falls by the will of a single customer: the president of the United States. The mission begins and ends with pleasing the White House, to a degree that is unique in the U.S. government. The FBI, after all, must abide by the law enforcement process. The actions of the State Department and the military visibly engage American prestige. The CIA offers the fig-leaf of invisibility, which can be very useful in appeasing domestic and foreign opinion-makers. Internally, in the uneasy silence of the world of secrets, the president’s voice rings loud and clear. If he asks, in the style of Henry II, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome terrorist?,” the mission-driven CIA will invariably step forward.

The resulting relationship is always dysfunctional, and often the cause of the disasters recounted by Jeffreys-Jones. Let’s skip over the sophomoric food fights over who gets to deliver the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, to a god-like chief executive. That’s only one episode in a long-running tragicomedy.

Presidents are ambitious purveyors of policy. They arrive in Washington brimming over with plans, turn to their briefers, and ask, “So what’s important for me to know about the world?” The answer is some version of “What do you want it to be?” This is not because the CIA wishes to flatter the president or evade its responsibility. Quite the opposite: The Agency is mandated to be not only apolitical, as Jeffreys-Jones observes, but also innocent of policy. Analytically, it deals in pure Platonic truth. It has no means of orienting itself in the tainted world of power other than by eliciting “presidential priorities.”

Of course, the president’s top priority is to get help implementing policy. The Agency regards this as prostitution. The tension is exacerbated by the trouble with prognosticating. A major reason for establishing the CIA back in 1947 was to avoid future Pearl Harbors, yet the record since has been one of serial surprises. That is only to be expected: Prophecy is an unfair burden to place on the shoulders of mere mortals. The behavior of complex systems is impossible to predict unless a system is extraordinarily stable. When tomorrow looks like yesterday, the CIA usually gets it right. Discontinuities like Pearl Harbor or 9/11—the kind of thing presidents want to know about—are quite another matter.

Afterwards, ex-presidents write bitter books about betrayal at ­Langley, and anonymous Agency personnel leak complaints about the “politicization of intelligence” by the departed administration. And then the tragicomedy resumes again. The plot hinges on an institutional mismatch rather than personal conflicts or policy disputes.

A Question of Standing offers the reader most of the facts of the Agency’s complicated history, from its foundation to the Trump years, but little in the way of a structure on which to hang them. Analytic judgments don’t follow logically from the theme but are tagged on events as they pass chronologically. Such judgments, as I said, reflect standard liberal values. Participation in the 1953 overthrow of the elected Mosaddegh government in Iran is said to have been approved by “‘­Orientalist’ and uptight Westerners.” Waterboarding is characterized as “a form of enhanced interrogation used five hundred years earlier by the Spanish Inquisition.” Putin’s “mendacity-mongers,” we are told, “helped to invent the Trump presidency.”

But the book is by no means a progressive anti-CIA screed. ­Jeffreys-Jones’s tone is evenhanded; he struggles worthily to present the other side of the question. The sense of incompleteness the reader is left with has less to do with ­ideology than with the author’s talent for collecting facts and his inability to tame them into a coherent theme.

One enormous fact overlooked by Jeffreys-Jones is the collision between the world of secrets and the tsunami of digital information. What is the purpose of an intelligence agency in a time when almost everything is known—when, i­ndeed, the challenge isn’t to amass information but to filter it? ­Espionage is likely to become a niche business: James Bond replaced by Google. The PDB has been compared to the president’s daily newspaper; but newspapers are going extinct, and presidents have access to an immense array of alternate sources of information. “Stealing secrets,” by the terabyte, can now be done unto us—consider WikiLeaks—even as we try to do it unto others. Under such radically altered conditions, what’s the way forward?

My sense is that the Agency is in total denial about the dimensions of the challenge. The web is perceived simply as a threat—to truth, to democracy, to the moral fiber of the nation. The CIA’s task is to lead a frenzied clamor of alarm about “disinformation,” fake news, election interference, and other low-risk but high-visibility hazards that make the digital into the mother of lies. The consequences have been meaningful. Once you embrace policing opinion in open media as part of the mission, the taboo against playing politics must be abandoned. That, in turn, allowed some players within the Agency to join in the federal bureaucracy’s ­unsavory jihad against Donald Trump. Fortunately, however, this is part of another story—one that would fill a fatter and far more sordid book than the one ­Jeffreys-Jones has given us.

Martin Gurri is a former CIA analyst.

Image by Picryl via Creative Commons. Image cropped.