CIA ‘Reforms’ Will Eviscerate Its Usefulness : Aldrich Ames will have his sweetest revenge if spying is made bureaucratically correct.


The CIA is on course to become the world’s most politically correct intelligence agency--and at the same time its most ineffective.

Thirty years ago, Walter Lippman wrote that a generation of American leaders had “overlearned the lessons of Munich.” Judging by reform proposals unveiled by CIA Director R. James Woolsey last month, a new generation is about to overlearn the lessons of the Aldrich Ames treason case. For this feat, Ames may permit himself a sardonic smirk of self-congratulation even as he contemplates lifetime incarceration.

Espionage is a strange business that attracts some rum customers. “My job is to live in the sewer,” former CIA Director Robert M. Gates was fond of saying to impressionable guests.

Few of us would feel comfortable cozying up to North Korean or Libyan cutthroats or plunging into the company of arms merchants or drugs traffickers to seek out a malcontent willing to spill his grubby secrets in exchange for envelopes filled with used dollar bills. Yet these are typical tasks facing CIA field operatives.


Unfortunately, the passion for bureaucratic process threatens to crowd out operational mission; promotion policy will reward business school skills over agent recruitment; ever more intrusive counterintelligence personnel scrutiny will eviscerate CIA cohesiveness. These reforms may produce a squeaky clean CIA, but don’t count on it to ferret out the secrets of the nation’s enemies.

Operational vitality represents an intelligence service’s life and soul. As far as the CIA’s Directorate of Operations is concerned, this means the ability to recruit new agents against hard targets like Iran or plutonium smugglers. This is a very rare skill. Most foreign intelligence agencies recognize this by fixing agent recruitment ability as the primary criterion of an officer’s promotability.

The Joint Security Commission which investigated the Ames case is moving in the opposite direction by recommending that “management accountability and high ethical standards” must henceforward be the main determinant of a CIA officer’s career progress. No one would gainsay the importance of these two measures, but a goody-two-shoes who cannot recruit agents is worse than useless as an intelligence officer. It’s much easier to avoid risk by staying in the office and practicing textbook management skills among CIA colleagues. If this now becomes the way to get ahead in CIA, it will be at the cost of more difficult, riskier tasks like penetrating Saddam Hussein’s entourage or busting the Cali cartel.

Hand in hand with operational vigor, an intelligence service needs a strong sense of corporate identity, a unifying culture, to compensate for the decidedly offbeat nature of intelligence work, where success goes unheralded but failure can be punished by humiliating public ridicule. Here again, the Joint Security Commission misses the mark, accusing CIA of acting like an elite fraternity and advocating the introduction of privacy-invading personal disclosure requirements.


After a scandal of the Ames proportion, this is an understandable recommendation, but its long-term application will need to be carefully handled. If applied with a heavy hand, there is nothing more corrosive of morale than constant, insensitive snooping that leads officers to feel that they are not trusted. Once uncorked, the genies of counterintelligence--in the manner of the devils of political correctness--will squirm their way into every corner of CIA life. The free spirits on whom any intelligence agency, the CIA included, depends for operational success will resist by quitting in droves. This will produce a duller, more lead-footed organization, ill-equipped to take on today’s agile enemies.

No one would argue that the CIA should be above the law, allowed to cut ethical corners, or divided into back-scratching male cliques. Of course it should not. There are also some legitimate questions about whether the CIA needs to continue in business. Certainly, thoroughgoing reform is necessary. But if shortcomings in satellite or telecommunications-derived intelligence mean that we still need human intelligence, then it is against the national interest to allow the Ames case to force changes on the CIA that will irretrievably hamstring its effectiveness.

In today’s climate in Washington, where the instinct for the bureaucratic jugular is so well developed, the momentum behind these reforms may already be irresistible. If so, the reformers need to be aware that, in depriving the CIA of its ability to function as a creative, albeit unconventional agency, they are handing Ames his sweetest revenge.