The Carter administration's "decapitation" of the agency in the late 1970s did long-term damage to the CIA. For two decades, the best and the brightest had to think twice about intelligence careers. Pay and prestige were certainly an issue, but the covert career also extracts personal costs. Operating in dark alleys and hard corners requires moral trade-offs, like paying Guatemalan thugs for tips. But thugs know thugs. Ten thousand bucks can elicit information that saves a hundred thousand lives. The terrorist incidents the CIA thwarts don't make the news. Professional credit is hush-hush. Spies can't get on cable TV talk shows and gush about success.
The threat posed by terrorists revived HUMINT at the CIA. Arguably, the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa began that process, but 9-11 accelerated it -- albeit a belated acceleration. Now the Obama administration's Holder-led crusade is putting that revival of expertise at risk. Damaging the first line of defense in what many Americans believe is now little more than a Carter administration-type political witch-hunt would be an extremely poor decision.
The penalty for intelligence failure is often cruelly simple: What you don't know will kill you. What you know but understand poorly, or what you know well but fail to use decisively, will also cost you in blood, money and political capital.
Intelligence is a difficult business and one that bad morale can damage for years by driving the best to either quit or never take the job. Good leaders raise morale. President Barack Obama needs to keep that in mind.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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