The CIA’s Record of Incompetence Argues for Abolition

Date: 20 May 1999 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The CIA’s Record of Incompetence Argues for Abolition

by David Morris
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

May 20, 1999 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

When he learned that the CIA had failed to update a 1992 map of Belgrade, leading NATO to mistakenly bomb the Chinese Embassy in an attack that killed 4, injured 20 and precipitated an international crisis, the former Defense Secretary of Britain Sir Malcolm Rifkind was moved to remark, “I find it extraordinarily incompetent…because if a mistake has been made in that area we cannot rule out similar incompetency elsewhere.”

Actually Sir Malcolm, the track record suggests that incompetency is what the CIA’s middle initial stands for and has for a long, long time.

Sometimes the Agency’s level of ineptitude is simply laughable. The 1998 CIA World Factbook, for example, informed us that the United Kingdom gained its independence on January 1, 1801. The correct date was a wee bit earlier–1087 to be exact. The Factbook also notified an astonished world that listens regularly to the BBC World Service that Britain has no shortwave broadcast stations.

When London’s Daily Telegraph inquired about the misinformation the CIA blithely responded, “We never comment on intelligence matters, or lack of intelligence matters.”

More often the CIA’s failures are no laughing matters.

In 1950 the Agency failed to anticipate North Korea’s invasion of South Korea and then compounded that oversight by failing to anticipate China’s intervention.

In 1961 the CIA’s intelligence leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion was so defective that John Kennedy shunned its advice for the rest of his life. Which was a good thing because in 1962 the CIA continued to deny that Russia intended to install missiles in Cuba up until the very moment photographs revealed they were already doing so.

In 1979 the CIA failed to predict the fall of the Shah of Iran and later that year, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In 1985 the CIA’s top analysts concluded that the USSR was a “very stable country”.

In 1988 the CIA assured the White House that Iraq was so exhausted from its war with Iran that it was not contemplating any further military excursions into nearby countries.

The appallingly shoddy nature of the CIA’s work has become even more apparent in recent years. In 1998 the Agency convinced the President to bomb a Sudanese business it insisted was manufacturing chemical weapons for terrorists. Turned out the laboratory was doing exactly what the government and its owners said it was doing–making medicines.

In fact, 1998 was a banner year for CIA gaffes. The Agency was literally asleep at the switch when India detonated several nuclear weapons. The intelligence staff learned about it when the rest of us did, when they woke up and turned on the morning news.

Each CIA failure has spurred a major investigation and fierce criticism by its Congressional overseers. Each time the CIA has promised to do better, and Congress and the White House have responded by increased the Agency’s budget. That pattern continues. After the India nuclear testing fiasco, two congressional oversight committees blasted the CIA. A few months later the President rewarded the CIA for its ineptitude by requesting a $3 billion increase in its budget. Congress was initially willing to accept that figure. But that was before the CIA’s disastrous error in Yugoslavia. Now the Senate is reportedly considering an even more substantial increase in the CIA’s budget!

In the upside down world of Washington, incompetence is not punished; it is rewarded. Is it any wonder that incompetence continues and flourishes?

The American people have given the CIA more than enough chances to mend its ways. It is time to take the next step. It is time to seriously consider Senator Patrick Moynihan’s suggestion to abolish the Agency. Fifty years of incompetency is enough.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.