License to fail

Amy B. Zegart is an associate professor of public policy at UCLA and the author of "Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11."

The CIA turned 60 last week, but there wasn’t much cause for celebrating. The storied spy agency has become a shell of its former self -- demoted beneath a director of national intelligence, dogged by criticism and bureaucratic turf wars, and demoralized by the fact that its glory days (which were never so glorious) are fading fast. The CIA doesn’t brief the president anymore, doesn’t manage the other dozen or so intelligence agencies that it used to and doesn’t produce the nation’s most important intelligence reports about our most dangerous enemies. It’s not even the only spy agency with spies. How did the CIA sink so low?

The CIA’s troubles did not start with 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq. Nor can they be laid at the feet of specific presidents or agency leaders, however wrongheaded their policies or morally troubling their methods. No, the CIA’s problems run much deeper, to 1947 and the politics of its creation.

Every government agency is a product of its time, a reflection of the international environment, the national mood and the political fights between flesh-and-blood legislators, presidents and bureaucrats. Because passing laws requires compromise, agencies are created by many people who want them to fail. And because laws tend to endure, the design flaws they enshrine do too, hindering and haunting the agency forever after. Founding moments loom large.

The CIA was no exception. It was crippled from birth. Deliberately.

In principle, the agency was supposed to prevent another Pearl Harbor by integrating intelligence efforts across the U.S. government. It was created as part of a sweeping legislative overhaul -- the National Security Act of 1947 -- that unified the military services into a single Department of Defense and created a raft of organizations to fight the Cold War. But even with a looming Soviet enemy and a determined President Truman, success didn’t come cheap. Nearly every provision of the National Security Act was bitterly contested and ultimately watered down.


The Central Intelligence Agency had many natural enemies and relatively weak supporters. All of the “Big Four” Cabinet departments at the time -- War, Navy, Justice and State -- had been conducting their own intelligence activities for years and stood to lose power and turf to any new intelligence organization with the word “central” in its name. Sailors, soldiers, diplomats and G-men fought furiously about other provisions of the law, but joined forces to lobby for the weakest CIA they could get. They won. And we all lost.

The National Security Act hobbled the CIA in two lasting ways. First, it gave the agency responsibility for coordinating all U.S. intelligence agencies but almost no power to get the job done. The CIA director had control over less than 20% of the intelligence budget (the secretary of Defense controlled the rest) and had no real ability to hire, fire, move or manage personnel working in any of the other intelligence agencies. As one former intelligence official put it, the CIA director’s power never amounted to more than “whining rights.”

Second, the National Security Act explicitly protected turf, making clear that existing intelligence agencies should “continue to collect, evaluate, correlate and disseminate” their own intelligence unfettered. Notably, the CIA was legally barred from gathering intelligence about American citizens on American soil, conducting any law enforcement or police activities or performing other internal security functions. These legal restrictions arose partly from fears of creating an American Gestapo, but also from intense lobbying by the FBI. The result was a structural split between foreign and domestic intelligence, with the CIA responsible for tracking enemies abroad and the FBI responsible for finding them at home. Decades later, the 9/11 commission found that this foreign-domestic intelligence gap was one of the crucial “institutional failings” exploited by Al Qaeda.

These two weaknesses gave rise to a third. Faced with an impossible mission and presidents who were searching for new Cold War weapons, the CIA soon turned to covert action and clandestine intelligence collection -- activities that many argue the National Security Act never intended or explicitly sanctioned. All the debates about just how dirty the CIA can get and what it should be doing -- ‘60s foreign assassination plots, extraordinary renditions, “black sites” in Eastern Europe, water-boarding and other forms of torture -- stem from two vague clauses in the 60-year-old law and how different leaders have interpreted them.

Today a new agency has been charged with succeeding where the CIA failed -- but with nearly all of the same design flaws. The director of national intelligence, like the CIA director before him, is struggling to make an even greater number of U.S. intelligence agencies operate as a unified team. He has weak statutory powers, and there is even more turf to grab. And he confronts an enemy more hidden, mobile and adaptive than the Soviet Union ever was.

As Mark Twain once famously said, history does not repeat, but it does rhyme.