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Does President Obama Need a Better CIA Spy Network?

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
March 8, 2009


The U.S. devotes about $50 billion yearly to efforts to assess the capabilities and intentions of other nations. Most of it buys satellite imagery and technology to intercept and decode communications. A big chunk goes to the military for its operational needs, a smaller part to the CIA for analyses and on-the-ground espionage.

President Obama will be looking to find out the answers to big questions such as these: Where is Osama bin Laden? Are Iranian and North Korean leaders determined to pursue nuclear-weapons programs? Will Iraqi leaders be able to govern together in peace? Can the political future of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai be salvaged?

Over the years, U.S. intelligence has delivered good value on matters such as whether Russia would raise oil prices or on the size of China’s military. But on many vital questions, the payoffs were dismal: whether the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 could rally Cubans against Castro and the danger of the Shah of Iran’s being overthrown in 1979.

Every President has tried to correct deficiencies. They’ve hired and fired CIA chiefs. Or they’ve circumvented the system by getting information directly from their foreign counterparts. Since they’ve spent their lives sizing up people, many Presidents figure they can do that better than the CIA. They’re almost always wrong. Bill Clinton thought he had such a fix on Yasir Arafat that he gambled U.S. prestige on the Palestinian’s agreeing to a peace accord with Israel in 2000; Arafat refused to sign. George W. Bush met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in 2001 and said, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy...I was able to get a sense of his soul.” It seems Bush missed a thing or two in his peek into Putin’s soul.

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