Unlike other controversial government agencies that merely squander taxpayers' money, the Central Intelligence Agency is a sinister enterprise with a long criminal record. Its sole rationale -- engaging in shadowy combat with its equally nefarious communist counterparts -- crumbled at about the same time the Berlin Wall did. Without a Cold War to wage, the CIA has become a dinosaur desperate to avoid extinction.
In the course of its 48-year rampage, it has left the geopolitical landscape strewn with victims. Eric Alterman, writing in Rolling Stone (March 23, 1995), reviews a 'small sampling of the CIA's darker moments: the hiring of Nazi war criminals; the overthrow of legally elected governments; the training and financing of foreign police and paramilitary forces engaged in systematic murder and torture; participation in clandestine invasions and actual wars against nations with which the United States was at peace; attempted assassinations of foreign leaders.'
Add to that shameful litany the recent revelation that a CIA henchman ordered the 1990 killing of an American innkeeper in the Guatemalan mountains and the 1992 torture-slaying of a guerrilla leader married to a U.S. citizen. As Robert Parry points out in In These Times (April 17, 1995), those are only two of 'the countless thousands' slaughtered in Latin America during the past four decades 'with tacit or explicit American support.'
Declaring that 'the CIA has made our country into the granddaddy of international terrorism,' an In These Times editorial (Dec. 12, 1994) concludes that it is time to 'put an end to its pernicious existence.'
No less an establishment figure than Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan agrees that the CIA should be abolished. What particularly rankles the New York Democrat is the agency's amply demonstrated incompetence. Moynihan is still incensed over the CIA's consistently inflated estimates of the Soviet threat during the '70s and '80s; despite their stated purpose of gathering information, the fall of communism and the Soviet Union took them by surprise.
Other big embarrassments include its protracted failure to unmask double agent Aldrich Ames; the charges by a top female officer that the CIA practices systematic sexual discrimination; and the bogus briefing given to U.S. lawmakers last year regarding the psychiatric history of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Despite being thoroughly disgraced and discredited, the CIA probably has little to fear from its fiercest foes. The Company has too many powerful friends intent on ensuring that it remains open for business.
The focus thus falls on reform proposals being brought before a presidential commission charged with charting the agency's future. A moderate set of recommendations, involving appointment of an 'intelligence czar,' is championed by a pair of Republicans who oversee the $28 billion budget for the dozen different spook shops within the U.S. government.
Former CIA director Robert Gates, a certified hard-liner, is the unlikely author of a comparatively radical revision that calls for cuts in the CIA's 19,000-person payroll, consolidation of various functions, and, most significantly, an end to the agency's covert-action operations. Breaking the CIA's habit of 'overthrowing heads of state and stealing elections' is, according to Alterman, 'an absolute prerequisite to the reassertion of democratic control over U.S. foreign policy.'
But that may also be too much to expect from President Clinton, his commission, and the Gingrich-Dole Congress. In Alterman's view, a move to open the entire U.S. spy budget to public scrutiny would serve as the real litmus test of the reformers' seriousness.
As the debate develops, the CIA is trying hard to make itself useful.
With the active assistance of dozens of U.S. corporations, the agency has begun intensifying its economic espionage activities. In Mother Jones (Jan./Feb. 1995), freelancer Robert Dreyfuss identifies Procter & Gamble, IBM, Campbell Soup, and Sears Roebuck as some of the companies that supply the CIA with cover in their overseas offices. These agents seek to steal secrets from foreign firms while others try to thwart similar pilfering from U.S. businesses.
It all amounts to a 'new Cold War,' as Dreyfuss puts it in In These Times (March 20, 1995). Today's CIA targets, he observes, 'are more likely to be in Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Mexico City than in Moscow and Havana.'
The incompetence factor is once again germane, however. Dreyfuss quotes inside sources who say the CIA doesn't yet know how to collect and collate truly useful economic and technical data.
The increasing emphasis on 'spying for dollars' can be seen as another government handout to U.S. corporations. But as an In These Times editorial notes (April 17, 1995), the CIA has always been in the business of disbursing corporate welfare. All the agency's murderous misdeeds in Guatemala and many other countries were performed with the aim of making the world safe for U.S.-based transnational corporations.