Among the urgent tasks we must quickly undertake, few are so urgent as a thoroughgoing revamping of the intelligence community. At the moment, it isn’t very impressive in either of the two main activities with which it’s entrusted: spying on our enemies and supporting our friends. You can see this easily enough. The Israelis, not the CIA et al., made off with the Iranians’ secret nuclear plans. So much for effective espionage. And there are two very closely linked enemies, Iran and Venezuela, that should be prime targets for subversion, but we don’t seem to be making good progress.
On the other hand, the intelligence community seems to do well, or at least try harder, at subverting our own political order, as we’ve learned over the recent past.
Or maybe not. Although the attempted subversion of Trump and associates produced the downfall of Lt. General Michael Flynn, the centerpiece of the intel operation—the Mueller show investigation—came up empty-handed, and the top levels of the FBI and CIA now face inquiries from Attorney General Barr, Justice Department Inspector General Horowitz, and the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut. Some of our top spooks have been fired.
Rather like Iran and Venezuela, isn’t it?
It’s an opportunity. For decades, Congress and various special committees and duos (such as Robb-Silverman) have invariably responded to intelligence failures by adding more bodies to the agencies and expanding their budgets. The predictable result? Today we’ve got too many spooks collecting too much money, with predictably bad results. Among other bad consequences, intelligence is typically churned out by committees, guaranteeing that we don’t identify our best analysts. We need to drastically reduce the numbers of both budgets and bureaucrats, in order to figure out who’s good. Then we need to promote them, within a much smaller system.
It’s hard to imagine this happening under normal circumstances, but today’s circumstances aren’t normal. As the investigations of the intel malefactors go forward, there will be numerous opportunities to remove lots of bad and incompetent actors, and put the whole community on the cutting-room floor.
It’s quite an old story. The intel community suffers from a failed culture, and the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan reluctantly and sadly concluded that there was no way to repair it. Toward the end of his career, Moynihan said the only remedy was to shut down the CIA and start all over again with a brand new cast of characters and a brand new organization. This is a great opportunity, and it requires considerable homework.
As Barr oversees the investigation of the sins of the intelligence community, he should simultaneously analyze what a properly functioning community would look like. For starters, he should have someone carry out the mission that General Flynn was preparing at the National Security Council before he was purged: conduct an audit of covert funding, beginning at the end of the Second World War, right up to the present. No such audit has ever been done (!).
Such an audit would expose who got how much money, and whether they used it for intended purposes. If you love poetic justice as I do, you’d hire Flynn himself to do it, although I doubt that’s going to happen. But it would be a hell of a start, wouldn’t it?