Friday, March 16, 2007

Some more thoughts on the CIA

(This is a follow-up on a post on the CIA and the Iraq war from a few weeks ago)

Over the past few years, the CIA has been mentioned in the media much more frequently than it had been before that. Often, as I noted in my previous post, these reports have supplied fodder for the inference that the CIA is a nonpartisan organization (unlike Fox News, many other federal bureaus and regulatory agencies since Bush came to office, and, at least to a lesser degree, probably every other institution in contemporary America) or at least for the inference that it is nonpolitical enough to be professional and competent in the face of a White House and legislative branch which have been increasingly exposed as exploiting their powers and responsibilities for selfish political gain, and, unfortunately, for little else. However, for liberals, this description belies what for many of us had been old hat and common sense.

Prior to 9/11, a well-informed, well-educated liberal could hear of or read the stories of how the CIA was involved in fomenting massacres of innocent civilians in South America, and of how the FBI was extremely racist not very long ago, and how in the COINTELPRO cases (Hobson v. Wilson, etc.) the FBI was found liable for harassing and committing civil rights violations against activist groups-- acts beyond its legal authority. Today, the FBI are treated as heroes in movies, but not too long ago, in pursuit of racist goals, they were hunting down politically active liberals of any race to harass them and destroy their lives. Having heard these stories, one has to wonder what kind of people these groups draw their personnel from, and to wonder how we know some change has occurred so that the personnel who used to be racist in these groups, are all now somehow replaced, or not racist anymore, so that these groups cannot be using their power anachronistically to promote aims that are contrary to the values of the American people.

Common sense- in addition to the anecdotes we've heard about the FBI or the CIA- tells us that no one kind of people, no people in any particular context (whether race, occupation, or geographic location, etc.) are uniformly great, moral people. All sorts of institutions have a variety of people working for them, in terms of aptitude and morality. And these institutions go through cycles of becoming corrupt and abused and well-functioning. With all the focus on the CIA in the news, that common sense may make one wonder who are all these people, what are the ways their actions may be reviewed and who reviews them, what really governs them, how can they be fired if individual people within the CIA are capable of doing so much covertly, how they can be trusted not to hire people and assign people to jobs and promote people on illegitimate bases (such as political party affiliation, holding of racist views, or religion) and how we can be sure their judgment and their methods are competent.

Take this a little further and consider the CIA with your common sense in the context of today's time. With all the concern over civil liberties since 9/11 happened, it's natural to wonder who are the people who so badly want to be able to torture suspects in their custody that whether to augment their authority becomes a national controversy. Especially when those suspects turn out to be innocent of wrongdoing- just cab-drivers and such and not terrorists (if the CIA were so excellent, you'd think we wouldn't hear stories like this, wouldn't you?). Look at this in the context of history and consider what other things people have done when they've felt threatened: when the nation and its police have such a long and recent history of racism, it's natural to wonder who are the individuals who will be conducting our "War on Terror" against these Middle Eastern people (After all, a war against a radical, popular religious enemy of a religion held almost exclusively by non-whites is the closest thing you can get to an actual race-war. And the biggest supporters of the war describe it in the press as a nigh-perpetual war). It's natural to want to know whether those people are the kind of people who are into the Christian Identity movement, whether they are the type of people who love G. Gordon Liddy and other irrational conservative talk show hosts.

It's natural knowing the history of secret police to not want crazy individuals who would go beyond their authority or not understand where their authority should end to wield that power; people who would decide in the course of using their authority in a heavy-handed, overly-broad way against the Muslims they are investigating, to "imagine" they also see wrong-doing by the liberal political activists they hate. And it especially makes sense in the context of post-9/11 time, when it's all too easy for people to talk to themselves in language suggesting that, now, anything is justified-- even when we all know that the complicated rules that govern our police and society are just in place to prevent evil abuse and damaging incompetence. Despite all the focus from the media, recently, though, we don't see much speculation on the CIA, or questioning of their performance or judgment, even though they wield such extensive power.

Once you've awakened this interest to make sure the sins of secret police of the past aren't repeated, and these people do not become corrupted, I think a few reasons draw attention to themselves to question the specific things we've heard about the CIA over the past few years. And even more than the general concerns that secret police in a general sense should work in a fair and just manner, there are specific reasons to prompt you to worry about our particular CIA now, even though you individually may be more naturally inclined (incorrectly, as I think I've shown) to believe that everything the CIA does should remain the CIA's business and no one else should care. For example, we know the CIA trained Bin Laden, and we know the CIA quit looking for him for quite a while- but you'd think they have nothing better to do than look for him. This should prompt anybody to wonder why. And this is regardless of how much sense any explanations particular people might guess for this make. With this CIA, it seems that not only do most of us not wonder, but that we've cut off our ability not only to ask but to even wonder. In any other context, we might ask, How do we know these people are not just a bunch of dopes or have lost their taste for dangerous work? Or, How do we know that they have not lost their taste for hard work, that usually goes with any kind of good reputation?

Even though it's possible the CIA could be a bunch of dopes, or people who want to control our society, or losers, while they are responsible for investigating terrorism, we have all not seemed that interested in questioning it. The urban legend about the CIA is that they've got the best people working for them, and that they only recruit the best people (they don't sound like the kind of people who would capture innocent cabbies and torture them, they sound like true heroes). Why do we believe the urban legend, when we don't believe legends applied to other groups (the virtue of priests, cops, and members of our own ethnic groups and faiths)? As we grow more old and mature, we lose our naivete about all types of people. But the CIA, unlike any other group or person, is uniquely positioned to protect its reputation. No one else can not only say what they want about themselves and what they do, but keep what they actually do otherwise secret.

So once we've been prompted to become skeptical again, there are a few things we might be skeptical of that we've seen in the media, that go beyond particulars (e.g., stopping chasing Bin Laden) to implicit themes the media messages support about what the CIA really is.

1 One is that the CIA is not ideological.

2 Another is that you can judge what the CIA is really about from how one spokesman to the media of the CIA, or one press statement, represents the group, or how one ex-CIA operative who discusses the CIA and security matters to the press seems.

3 Another is that the CIA is professional and competent and works within the bounds of ethics and within the legal limits placed on the organization's power, and not to further any individual CIA officer's personal, egotistical, or ideological ends, to the point of damaging the legitimate, practical ends of the American people.

As far as being ideological, you should think about what kind of person would want to belong to a secret police organization. What kinds of people have you known that wanted to become regular police? What kinds of people that you knew actually became police? Or became military personnel? A lot of us think police stories and war adventures are interesting when we're growing up. A lot of liberals enjoy movies and books and fiction that center around those kinds of themes, and probably secretly wish or have wished they could do the kinds of things portrayed there. The popularity of police and military movies attests to the appeal of these stories beyond any particular profession or type of person. But do liberals actually get those jobs? Not really. It's much more common for a liberal to grow out of that, to think that other pursuits are a better use of his or her abilities-- and if a liberal does join the military, to only use it as stepping stone to something greater in life. Liberals are not hobby warriors who mentally masturbate themselves to the idea of warfare and controlling people and hurting people, to the idea of humiliating people, and they think that other things are more interesting than fighting. They may think fighting is interesting, but they read books on other things, on science and literature and so forth, and not just about police and fighting and wars all the time. There's a reason why police organizations were historically racist. That there aren't liberals in a group means that it's conservatives who are left over, and we know what conservatives are like, especially when they're left in a group with no one else around.

I don't mean to imply that police departments are all racist or all full of assholes, and we all have stories of the good cop we've met. But I do mean to suggest what people tend to do. I think most police departments, if I had to guess, can be described by a three-way split. One third of the guys may be the worst, real assholes- the guys who harass you when they pull you over, real racists, the guys we read about who rape women or run whorehouses. Another third of the guys may be along for the ride with that first third of the guys, may admire the first third, may know about most of the wrong and criminal practices the first third engages in, and may be easily talked into what those guys want to do- but in the absence of the worst, they wouldn't exactly be thinking up all those horrible things to do, or want to do it all, themselves. Then we have the third that are really just along for the ride, and this includes those who are (relatively) good cops. These may condone what the others do just out of loyalty to fellow cops- to not be policing their buddies so that their buddies will support them- and even though they know those guys are bad guys, they may never speak up about the wrong things the others do, even if they may really want to a few times. Even some of this third may be racist (which partly motivated them to become cops), but only in a passive way, not at all like the active way members of the other two thirds may be. Of course we should be worried about who calls the shots in a police department- the bad third is easily enough going to contain pushy people, and we tend to make people who are relatively pushy leaders- rather than push-overs. Whether one third or another controls a particular police department is going to be a matter of chance and history as regards any particular police department. And I do think this is a pretty fair summary of a typical police department, if you want to know what I honestly think.

If the CIA is anything like this, you may agree we have reason to be concerned, and especially if the bad third is in control of things- as probably too often has been the case with municipal, state police departments. With all the right-wing yahoos out west, and with the Evangelical co-opting of the Air Force Academy, do you think there are no wackos in the CIA? It might be that a lot of the leadership are like a cross between D-FENS from the movie Falling Down and John Doe from the movie Seven- guys who would love the movie Seven but who would never in a million years see that its message is a critique of unbridled law enforcement, not praise of it- that the writer is saying that maybe homicide detectives really should be able to kick down doors without a warrant sometimes, but that Puritan wackos like John Doe don't realize that what they want is unobtainable and not worth the efforts they make (basically terror) to try to obtain.

As far as thinking that the whole personnel of the CIA, including its current leaders, are accurately represented by the impression you got from one person you saw on TV speaking for the CIA, or one instance of CIA action being reported on TV news, I would just like to remind you that it would be really unlikely if any organization so large contained only people who were birds of a feather. Indeed, the GOP in general contains stooges (for example, black people in the GOP are sell-outs or stooges), people who are useful for stupid-work because they are more expendable (i.e., perhaps not as ideological, or racist, as others are) and who can rise in the ranks from being lower servants to being greater servants, but can never really make real decisions. That one person who used to be in the CIA decides to write novels, become a consultant on terrorism to the federal government, write other books on learned subject, speaks very well and seems alright when he is interviewed on TV for his security point of view, does not represent what other people in the CIA are like- and he may not even really be as nice as he seems. And how many examples of openly ex-CIA people who are like that are there, really?

Going back again to the third assumption- that the CIA is not ideological to the point of doing things they're not supposed to to pursue goals they're not supposed to pursue- reminds me of all the criticism of the Iraq war intelligence by the CIA in its statements to the press. Surely, the CIA knows what is in its interest and knows what's not, and knows that it is a threat to it if it is seen as doing anything it is not supposed to be doing. The CIA probably thinks the American people are a threat to it and that CIA employees are a threat to it, and knows that it's best for it that the American people and CIA employees both perceive it as not dishonestly sending them to do things for the wrong reasons, and is conscious of effecting how both perceive it. What this means is, if you think it's likely that the CIA knew that endorsing the intelligence the Bush administration was using about weapons to justify the war to the press would be leaving themselves vulnerable to being caught in a lie to the press, and the lie was a lie that would set Congress to send the American people to war, do you really think the CIA would do it? Secret police that are seen as Gestapos cannot last or thrive. So statements from the agency about what it thinks about something are worthless for telling us what it really thinks, but only definitely useful for telling us how it wants to be perceived. Especially if you are inclined to conclude that CIA people are a lot more likely to be like Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio wackos than other types of people, who would probably enjoy the idea of eliminating people who aren't white.