CIA took its eye off the ball, paid the price

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In reaction to the news that CIA spies in Lebanon have been discovered and captured, The Atlantic’s Max Fisher writes about the agency’s changing role over the past decade as it combats Al-Quaeda using an increasingly forceful and heavy-handed approach.

These changes, he says, have taken the focus away from counter-intelligence (which could have saved the Lebanon operation) and moved it to force, as the CIA fights drone wars on multiple fronts.

How much has the CIA changed since 2001? In the late 1990s, senior officials in the Clinton administration debated endlessly over whether the CIA could legally be granted the authority to kill Osama bin Laden; the agency had been banned from assassinations since 1976, following revelations that it had tried to kill Fidel Castro a decade earlier. Even the idea of a direct presidential order to kill the world’s most dangerous terrorist, a man who had already blown up two U.S. embassies, was considered controversial and outside the CIA’s normal realm. Yet in the first 20 months of the Obama administration, the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan alone killed over 800 people. It runs or helps run drone programs and special operations in several countries and even operates detention centers. Under Obama, the CIA and Pentagon have borrowed one another’s methods in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention one another’s leadership) so regularly that the line between U.S. intelligence and the U.S. military has blurred in unprecedented ways.

In other words, the CIA has gone from behind-the-scenes intelligence gathering angency to another finger on the United States’ heavy hand against terrorism.

The need for counterterrorism is hard to argue against just over a decade after the fall of the twin towers, but the entities involved in those efforts — at least the forceful aspects of them — are debateable. Fisher makes the case that the CIA is needed elsewhere.

Maybe the CIA can continue to handle both its old missions as well as its new, more aggressive tasks. But the agency’s embarrassment in Lebanon suggests that it has emphasized paramilitary-style counterterrorism at the expense of spycraft. And while al-Qaeda has certainly posed a significant threat to the U.S., the terrorist group’s power is eroding. Meanwhile, the U.S. still has to live in a world with dangerous rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, semi-hostile foreign intelligence services such as Russia’s and China’s, and anti-American groups from Hezbollah to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence to Mexican drug cartels. At some point, the CIA — and the White House — will have to decide whether al-Qaeda and related groups really outweigh all of those threats.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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