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“The CIA and the Culture of Failure,” hoo, that’s my kind of title, and I looked forward to hearing what author and journalist John Diamond would have to say at the St. Louis Women’s Democratic Forum. I was thinking, the klutzes at the Company couldn’t predict the fall of the Shah, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or Pakistan’s acquisition of the bomb. Oh and oops, almost forgot: 9/11. The amount of the budget for these blunderers is a state secret (since 1997 under Clinton), according to an article by Diamond himself.

I was ready to hear him ream the agency not only for its ineptitude, but also for its determination during the last century to turn Latin America into its own personal police state, first by overthrowing democratically elected governments–recall Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, to name the most infamous–then, by training Latin American police forces in repression and torture at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Not that agents always kept a discreet distance from the dirty work of their trainees. The agency sent operatives to El Salvador to mentor the death squads tasked with making union organizers disappear.

In 1963, the U.S. government sent 10 Special Forces personnel to El Salvador to help General Jose Alberto Medrano set up the Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista (ORDEN)-the first paramilitary death squad in that country. These Green Berets assisted in the organization and indoctrination of rural “civic” squads which gathered intelligence and carried out political assassinations in coordination with the Salvadoran military.

Now, there is compelling evidence to show that for over 30 years, members of the U.S. military and the CIA have helped organize, train, and fund death squad activity in El Salvador.

But I would have understood if Diamond had ignored that seamy part of our history, because it wasn’t a failure. Evil, yes. But not a failure. The CIA was a boffo, socko success for decades on end at stealing the natural resources and cheap labor of banana republics. So I hoped instead to hear Diamond comment, in the spirit of Syriana, about how the agency’s constant meddling in the Middle East constantly comes back to bite us.  The ugly consequences of propping up the Shah springs to mind, for starters. We’d have done better in the Middle East–and been able to claim some high ground–if we’d forbidden the Company to stick even a tippy toe into the region. Because we never content ourselves with finding out what the other parties are up to. No, no. We meddle, we bully, and almost without exception, we make things worse.

It turns out, though, that the time frame of Diamond’s book was carefully limited and that he was not noticeably irate. What he had to say was worth hearing; I just wanted whiskey instead of iced tea. “The Culture of Failure” focuses on the way that politics influenced the intelligence that the CIA disseminated to Congress in the decade and a half after the agency lost its founding mission with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Nervous, now that its familiar enemy had evaporated, the Company stumbled in the shadowy world of Middle East intrigue and terrorism, a “forest full of snakes.” It offered an over-cautious prediction before the start of the Gulf War, forecasting a long, difficult slog that might become a quagmire, with perhaps twenty thousand casualties. It circulated photos of ditches four yards deep filled with rolls of razor wire and reminded Congressmen that Saddam Hussein had the fourth largest army in the world and the largest in the Middle East. Republicans, eager for a conflict, flipped a finger at the dire warnings. Democrats, who had more institutional memory of Viet Nam, listened. And voted no.

Only 18 percent of them voted to give authorization for the war, so when the attack turned into a rout, when we learned that much of the vaunted Iraqi army was made up of shell forces who fled like four year olds before a dragon in the face of a half million U.S. troops, the Democrats who had voted no looked lily-livered. There was no small amount of tension between those Dems and the CIA after that.

And the tension was still there when 2002 rolled around and the debate on whether to authorize force against Iraq arose. When asked for intelligence about this situation, the CIA, eager not to make the same mistake twice, went simple-minded. The Company’s thinking went something like: we walloped the Iraqis in ’91 when their army was twice as big as it is now. How hard could it be this time? They ignored the obvious: the probability of sectarian strife once Saddam was gone, of nationalist sympathies arising when an invader arrived without any overt act to prompt war, of urban guerrilla warfare.

(Agency bureaucrats will point out that there were reports pointing out that attacking Iraq would be tantamount to jabbing a hornet’s nest. What they don’t mention is that the reports were written after the invasion.)

Diamond was especially impressed with Bush’s reaction to the private briefing he received. After looking at all the maps, with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back about each one (shades of Alice’s Restaurant), he complained that it wouldn’t convince Joe Citizen to believe we could win. So Tenet told him what he wanted to hear, that the war would be a slam dunk. Tenet took all the heat for that exchange because he exaggerated, but it wasn’t as if Bush had complained because he had been looking for the truth about how the war might go. He just wanted some healthy, strapping rhetoric to hang his war on. Truth didn’t come into the equation.

This time, when the vote came up in the Senate, 58 percent of the Democrats voted yes. Ten of them had been there in ’91, and nine of those switched from the no column to the yes column. (The other senator switched from yes to no.) Granted, the shift in Democratic willingness to authorize war cannot be laid solely at the CIA’s door. Post 9/11 sentiment contributed as well, of course. And it’s not as if those who changed their votes could have stopped the war anyway. But they’d have had more credibility later when they tried to get us out of there if they hadn’t voted in favor of the war.

So, again, the Democrats regretted their votes and laid much of the blame on the CIA. Diamond’s conclusion is that anyone who paid careful attention to the security briefings would have been able to raise important questions in advance–like, for instance, that the drones that were supposedly designed for dropping chemical agents on Saddam’s enemies probably couldn’t have been used for that. That’s according to the Air Force, and who better to render a credible opinion on that subject? (Hell, a glance at a picture of one of those drones would more likely inspire laughter than fear. It looked like a kid’s model plane, held together with chewing gum and rubber bands.)

Republicans, who almost to a man knew how they were going to vote, blew off the security briefings. More Democrats did due diligence in that respect, but not enough. Diamond wishes that the next time the idea of launching a war arises, congressmen be required to present themselves at the secure room, sign the sign-in sheet and actually read what there is to know about the issue.

That sounds sensible. I’m more radical, though. If we’re even going to let the CIA survive, which I’m not convinced is in our best interests, let’s make their budget public again, slash it, require them to find enough Arab speaking translators, and, please, god, figure out some kind of o
versight. At a minimum.

Make this next shot a double.