Ask the man on the street to name a spy, and the answer will almost certainly be "James Bond." Suave, omni-competent (particularly with the fairer sex), and invariably bringing victory to the Right Side, Agent 007 represents all that's glamorous and effective about clandestine operations. Miss Moneypenny's heartthrob has so entered popular culture that, it's said, a residual veneration and admiration for Her Majesty's Secret Service contributed to the British government's willingness to go to war in Iraq on the basis of what we now know to be somewhat flimsy intelligence.
America's leaders have no such excuse. Even the movies, long the promoters of unrealistic expectations of what spies can prove and accomplish, rarely find anything good to say about the CIA. When a CIA agent accomplishes something good and right, it's always over the opposition of his moronic, venal, or otherwise incompetent superiors; more commonly, CIA agents represent a force for corruption and evil.
While "American government agents" do appear as heroes on film, they're always from some other agency. If a competent spy is required by the script, a super-secret and previously unknown government home is created for them. The spy may wield all manner of unlikely gadgets and avail himself of preposterously good luck in carrying out his mission, but it would stretch the bounds of credulity just too far to expect any notable accomplishments from the CIA, even in a work of fiction.
It's in this context that we read the truly amazing news that the CIA - or, in journalese, the "American intelligence community" - has decided that Iran does not, after all, have any plans to make nuclear weapons, and haven't for four years. That is to say, they stopped their ambitions in 2003 -- or so -- and could not achieve a bomb by 2015 - or possibly 2010...
On what basis do they arrive at this conclusion? How do they know that Iran stopped nuclear development four years ago, when last week they thought they'd been going at it full throttle for all that time? Or did they know, but lied for the last four years? Or has nothing changed in the facts, just the interpretation? How are we supposed to know what to think?
The history of the last few years shows that the CIA and other intelligence agencies are at war with our government. At every turn, the CIA has massaged intelligence, "leaked" false but authoritative-sounding information, and covered truth in an attempt to embarrass the administration.
They are not alone, the State Department has done much the same thing; neither is the CIA the only intelligence agency that does this. Pakistan's ISI is worse, having conducted their own private foreign policy for years, up to and including making war. But American government agencies are not supposed to operate this way.
What's more, the last half-century is a litany of total incompetence and error on the part of the CIA. From the CIA-backed coup against Iran's Mohammed Mossadeq, which led to the Ayatollah Khomenei and the mullahcracy we're now at war with; to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and various assassination attempts against Castro, which motivated Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK and whose abysmal failures Fidel still ridicules us with; through the week before the Berlin Wall fell, when the CIA figured the Communists were still in the lead over us both economically, technically, and militarily; and on up to the famous intelligence failures of 9-11, which need no detailing here - in every major world event, and pretty much all the minor ones too, the CIA has been totally, completely, irredeemably clueless.
It would be a foolish president indeed who trusted anything they said. This may explain their desire to game the system by spreading lies. Since nobody powerful believes them anyway, it doesn't matter, but a strategic lie at the right time can still influence events in their favor. Thus far, this strategy appears to have protected the agency from the consequences of its failures -- their budget just goes up and up, even as their reliability digs new depths.
Is it possible that the CIA is delivering this report out of vengeance? It is no secret that Bush and CIA dislike each other. A friend of mine who worked at the NSA for many years, recounts events where the CIA would take NSA intelligence reports, wrap them with their own memos and present them as their own findings to the President. They would even go so far as to remove the NSA's letterhead and briefing material.
Early in Bush's first term, he was made aware of this practice and the relatively insignificant additions that the CIA were making. So he dumped the process and started asking to see the raw NSA one instead. This made the spooks upset. If they didn't get their face time, their budget would finally start to drop.
There are two good reasons, then, that this NEI was produced. It is either a knee-jerk makeup for their previous incompetence with Iraq, or the CIA likes to see Bush sucking wind. Perhaps both reasons contributed.
By taking this preposterous action, the CIA has provided a signal service. There has long been question over the extent and intent of Iran's nuclear program. Having now come down firmly on the side of Iran's innocence, however, our intelligence community has provided us with conclusive, actionable proof - the truth of Bush's accusations.
The CIA says Iran is innocent? You couldn't ask for more certain evidence of their guilt. Time to take them out, and by "them", I'm referring not just to Iran, but to the CIA.