Jacob Heilbrunn

Cronyism at the CIA

 Is the CIA really suffering a post-9/11 brain drain? The Washington Post is acting as though it has uncovered a big problem. It showcases the departure of some top officials from the CIA in the past decade. But the story misses the real angle, which is buried halfway through the piece. The problem isn't that the CIA is losing officials to outside consulting agencies. It's that their exodus is another sign of how counter-intelligence has become part of the big business of American foreign policy. Lobbying to land big government contracts is the name of the game. And it's clearly a highly lucrative one.

The blunt fact is that for a brain-drain to have occurred there would have had to have been brainy types at the CIA in the first place, which is something that is subject to debate. The record of the agency in recent decades has, more often than not, been dotted by failures rather than successes, with 9/11 the most prominent example. Certainly the CIA has also been misused by presidents who want plausible deniabilty, though in the case of the Bush administration, which ran an entire secret prison system around the world and sanctioned torture, it became increasingly implausible.

What former CIA officials do possess, as the Post observes, is the ability to guide defense contractors through the thicket of congressional committees. What's more, the CIA also now relies upon its former employees. Richard "Hollis" Helms, a veteran former CIA employee, is apparently the pioneer of working for the CIA itself as a contractor:


“Hollis is brilliant; he realized there was a huge market out there to exploit. He printed money for a while — hired tons of CIA staffers and doubled their salary. He was the first agency guy to figure it all out,” said one former chief of station, the term for the top CIA officer at a U.S. embassy. “You would see people leave the CIA on a Friday and come back on Monday in the same job but working for Abraxas.”


Once upon a time the CIA recruited mostly at Yale University, a tale told by Robin Winks in Cloak and Gown. Now the old ethos of service to the nation for its own sake has changed. The CIA appears to have become a much more mercenary outfit. It hasn't corrupted Washington, but been corrupted by it.

So it's not that the CIA's managers are doing something unusual or reprehensible. Essentially, it's a sign of how corrosive America's approach to foreign affairs has become. The government has turned into a giant welfare agency for its former officials. The problem isn't the CIA. It's that a sprawling intelligence empire, so vast that no one can truly oversee it, has become a piggy bank for its employees.