Why an Intelligence Inquiry Is Needed

Although there have been surprisingly few recriminations directed against the CIA and other American intelligence agencies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress is now moving to create a bipartisan commission to investigate intelligence gathering policies and the ways intelligence is used by government. We should hope that the commission will, like the post-World War II commissions that investigated civil rights and the status of women in the United States, come forward with both a critical analysis and concrete recommendations. To succeed, the commission will need to evaluate the validity and the reliability of intelligence agencies’ overseas sources, while investigating the organizational structures and political assumptions and aims of the agencies that employ them.

Investigations of intelligence blunders, real and imagined, are not new. A generation ago, a Senate committee led by Sen. Frank Church investigated CIA covert actions in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate conspiracy. Before that, the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph McCarthy investigated alleged counterintelligence failures in the executive branch, claiming that it was riddled with Soviet agents who were responsible for everything from the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the Soviet development of nuclear weapons to  juvenile delinquency and modern art. During World War II, a congressional committee investigated the failure to warn of the Pearl Harbor attack.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor investigation in 1944, wartime secrecy (the transcript was released only after the war) turned the investigation into an exercise in political shadow boxing between supporters and opponents of the Roosevelt administration. It encouraged isolationists to see the attack as provoked or, at the least, tolerated by the president.

HUAC investigations of “communists in government” and the charges of Sen. McCarthy were in effect a political guerrilla war against the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Today these investigations are rightly remembered for producing a climate of fear and ruining careers and lives. Rather than stimulating any serious congressional examination of intelligence, which had grown tremendously with the creation of the Defense Department, the National Security Council and the CIA in the aftermath of World War II, McCarthyism in its many forms encouraged complicated patterns of censorship and self-censorship in government and the private sector. In such an atmosphere, American intelligence agencies were able to operate without serious congressional oversight.

The Church committee investigation of 1975, while it was condemned by some as endangering CIA operations and personnel, made significant information available to the public about intelligence activities and provided for limited congressional oversight of covert actions. As events in the Reagan administration showed, governments can evade such oversight by going through other channels. Still, the Iran-Contra scandal, which rocked the Reagan administration and even raised the possibility of impeaching the president, showed that there was a political price to pay for getting caught defying the Church committee recommendations.

If the history of the Cold War provides any lessons, intelligence gathering should be coordinated with policymaking bodies and oriented toward problem solving, rather than reacting to crisis. Intelligence gathering should also be an arm of a U.S. foreign policy that fosters social and economic development and democratization abroad, so that U.S. intelligence services will not be hated and feared, as the CIA has been for decades.

Even so, CIA intelligence gathering has often been perceptive. From the mid-1950s until U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, CIA reports accurately described the strength, indigenous nature and widespread rural support of the Vietnamese Communists. Yet the reports were routinely ignored, since they interfered with politically manipulated depictions of the conflict as a branch of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

With appropriate guidelines, any commission set up in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001 should clearly  relate its investigation to the attacks, an intelligence disaster of unprecedented dimensions. To understand why it happened, the public must first have a thorough understanding of CIA involvement with the Pakistani intelligence, the Saudi government and other nation-states and agencies in the Afghan war of the 1980s. Direct and indirect CIA relations with Osama bin Laden, including the sources of his group’s funding, must also be carefully studied. Additionally, a careful reconstruction needs to be undertaken of intelligence analysis in the weeks before the attack.

Although some will no doubt accuse the commission of compromising “national security,” as uncritical champions of the CIA did before the Church committee a generation ago, only public knowledge of the errors and failures that led to the disasters on Sept. 11 can help to reform the intelligence community.

Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.

January, 2002