Failing At Its Job Is The Best Thing the CIA Has Ever Done


No organization in U.S. history has amassed a reputation quite like that of the Central Intelligence Agency. Often referred to by its acronym, CIA, or simply just “the Agency,” it is often regarded as the long and shadowy arm of the U.S. government's foreign policy. It can be tempting to see the agency as force for good in the world, or at the very least a necessary evil, especially when publicly vaunted heroes like Mike Spann join because in doing so they believed they “would be able to make the world a better place to live in.” The problem is that the CIA really does not do that. In fact, most of the agency’s activities are underhanded and dishonest when they are not misguided or simply futile. Even with a poor reputation at home and abroad, the CIA has done some things that actually resulted in long-term benefits to the rest of the world, mainly by publicly failing to carry out an operation to its intended end and exposing its misdeeds to the rest of the world.

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) CIA endeavor to fail in such a spectacular manner was debacle surrounding the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The operation was supposed to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro by supporting a military group that opposed his administration. Cuba's previously strong relationship with the U.S. prior to Castro’s rise to power and his connections to the Soviet Union provided all the justification then-President Eisenhower, his successor, John F. Kennedy, and the CIA needed to conduct the operation. A lot of factors contributed to the operation’s failure, and the entire situation became a huge source of embarrassment to the U.S. It did, however, create an unprecedented public awareness of just what this previously shadowy organization was, and how it fit into the federal government.

Famous investigative reporter Seymour Hersh quite possibly could have been inspired by this event when in 1974 he broke the news about a massive CIA domestic intelligence and spying operation. This prompted Congressional investigations in both the Senate and the House, which ultimately resulted in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), both ostensibly designed to protect American citizens from domestic intelligence gathering. While the effects of these efforts remain a point of question, the Congressional Church and Pike Committees, respectively from the Senate and House, forced Congress to formally address Americans’ freedoms and take steps to protect them. These remain some of the most important developments in the relationship between ordinary Americans and the spies that supposedly protect their interests and security.

Another development that came out of the Church and Pike Committees were several executive orders, including EO 11905, EO 12036, and EO 12333, that prohibited intelligence organizations, namely the CIA, from engaging in political assassinations to further U.S. government interests.  This is probably the most important development as far as the global community is concerned, since it protects foreign governments from violent external manipulation at the hands of an organization that at the time was regarded a “rogue elephant.” The CIA has since developed a number of means for skirting these constraints, most notably in the strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, but the legal framework constraining political assassination activities is firmly in place and would not have come into existence had suspicions not been cast upon the CIA's activities in the first place.

While the CIA may have accomplished important things in the past (although the merits of those successes are debatable and beyond the scope of this article), it may have served the U.S. and the world best by blundering in ways that cannot be ignored. In doing so, it brought attention to its activities and forced lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to evaluate the agency and place constraints on what it does. The C.I.A.’s motto comes from John 8:32, which reads “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The irony is that in exposing itself to public scrutiny, the CIA has let Americans and the world know the truth, albeit part of it, and we are all a little freer for it.