The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The subtle damage to the CIA

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The Senate’s CIA torture report will have many political repercussions. It’s highly likely, as Greg Miller and Dana Priest argue today, that the report will not substantially dent the CIA’s political power. The CIA’s budget has expanded substantially, and politicians seem willing to draw a fence around the CIA’s past involvement in torture.

Even so, the report is likely to do considerable subtle damage to the CIA — and in particular, to the CIA’s relationships with other actors in the broader ecology of information. The CIA’s operational activities go together with a less publicly notorious, but arguably more effective community of analysts. These analysts are often loosely involved in broader networks of relationships with policy experts in academia and think tanks (many of them political scientists). Most of the work of the CIA is in analyzing information that is relevant to U.S. interests, and ever more of the information that is useful to the intelligence community is “open source” or publicly available, rather than clandestine. The CIA, like other government agencies, has only limited resources, and supplements its internal expertise with frequent outreach to academic and non-academic experts who might have useful things to say. Finally, the CIA needs to recruit highly skilled analysts, who often have a lot of specialized experience, and could typically earn much more money in the private sector.

In short, the CIA relies on relationships with a variety of people, and in particular with academics and people with semi-academic skills in a broader ecosystem of information. Many of these relationships are likely to be badly damaged by yesterday’s revelations. Academics will be less likely to want to talk to, or work with the CIA than before. Smart and idealistic young people will be less likely to sacrifice other opportunities to work for what is at best likely to seem a flawed and problematic organization.

This will plausibly have a number of consequences. If my argument is right, the CIA will be intellectually weaker and poorer at intelligence analysis than before, especially in areas where it has previously outsourced a lot of its thinking. In response to this challenge, it will become a more internally focused organization than before, since it will have considerably greater difficulty in getting external experts to engage with it. Moreover, there will be differences between the people who will still work together with the CIA, and those who will not. Those who are willing to maintain a relationship will be more likely to be traditional Beltway contractors, more likely to have some pre-existing military or security orientation, and more likely to be politically conservative. Those who will not will be more likely to be academics, less likely to have a direct security orientation, and will be more likely to be politically moderate or liberal.

Hence, the CIA — like many organizations in difficult times — is likely to face social pressures that tend to reinforce its insularity. The parts of the organization that are most distant from the abuses, and most reliant on relationships with the outside world, are exactly the parts of the organization that are most likely to suffer, as they find that external actors (on whom they have previously relied) are unwilling to work with them any more. For similar reasons, the recruitment pool for the CIA (which has notoriously been far from diverse) is likely to shrink and become even less intellectually diverse than it is today.