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American spooks: Heavy sleepers


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“The CIA was asleep, the FBI was asleep, the FAA was asleep,” James Woolsey told Chris Matthews on MSNBC on the night before the release of the September 11 Commission’s final report. “The rubber never met the road,” explained Woolsey, CIA chief during the first two years of the Clinton administration, referring to how 19 hijackers could beat U.S. defenses from top to bottom in the largest attack on American soil in the nation’s history.

Unfortunately, American intelligence has been asleep at the wheel for a long time, for half a century, from Iran in 1953 to Manhattan in 2001. More money and more power, the traditional recommendation, have never worked in the past. In installing the repressive regime of the Shah of Iran in 1953, a more or less fascist dictator with his own string of torture chambers, the CIA was fully asleep as to how this assault on Iran’s sovereignty would in due course advance the Islamic revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeni to power in the 1970s, a revolution which caught the CIA by surprise. Coming up short again, the CIA didn’t quite foresee how giving training, weapons and financial support to Osama bin Laden to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan could lend a helping hand in inciting much of the Arab world into a jihad against the entire “godless society of the West,” Manhattan included.

In 1998, after 36 years of secrecy about exactly how the CIA bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion, a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archive unearthed a report written by Lyman Kirkpatrick, the CIA’s Inspector General. Kirkpatrick’s conclusion after a six-month investigation: “The agency became so wrapped up in the military operation that it failed to appraise the chances of success realistically. Furthermore, it failed to keep the national policymakers adequately informed.” 

As Stanford historian Roderick Kramer explains, President Kennedy “did not have good reason to believe that the plan would fail.” What Kennedy didn’t know is that the entire operation was, in Kirkpatrick’s words, “sabotaged by bad intelligence, incompetent staffing, illusionary planning and self-deception.” With the Soviet Union, Herbert E. Meyer, who served during the Reagan administration as special assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, writes of the CIA’s “deep failure in the Cold War” in a recent National Review column. “For several years during the Reagan administration, I had access to many of our intelligence services’ most closely held secrets,” explains Meyer. “In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the CIA produced a stream of intelligence assessments whose key judgment was that the Soviet economy was growing at an annual rate of more than 3 percent. The implication of this steady growth was that the Soviet Union had the economic wherewithal to continue fighting the Cold War for as long as anyone could foresee. There was just one problem with the agency’s key judgment: It couldn’t possibly be right. If you understood how an economy works --- or if you just put on a pair of comfortable shoes and walked the streets of Moscow, or Leningrad, or Minsk with your eyes wide open --- it was obvious that the Soviet economy wasn’t growing at 3 percent. It wasn’t growing at all: It was starting to implode.”

And there are, of course, the CIA’s exploding cigars, designed to change the government in Cuba, and the poisons sent to the Congo to kill Patrice Lumumba, the CIA-funded assassins of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the CIA-supported coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, and the killing of Gen. Rene Schneider, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, during a CIA-instigated coup to prevent Salvador Allende from assuming the office of President of Chile, all officially documented in the 1975 report of the Select Committee of the U.S. Senate to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.

Well, Castro’s still there and Woolsey says the CIA was sleeping on the morning of September 11, in spite of all the wake-up calls at the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers barracks in 1996, the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. What’s clear, at $40 billion per year for intelligence, is that we’re paying a mighty steep price for a lot of heavy sleepers.


Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University and a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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