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Friday, October 17, 2008

Relax, the CIA is not all powerful

When most of the people think of the CIA, they imagine powerful, secretive bureaucrats, elite commandos, and high-tech equipment. They can go anywhere and do anything; they are unstoppable. These ideas are reinforced by popular entertainment. However, a strong case can be made that the agency is hilariously inept.

Great CIA blunders, in no particular order:

#1: They blew up the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by mistake. The reason? Their maps were out of date.

"There were three basic failures. First, the technique used to locate the intended target – the headquarters of the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement (FDSP) – was severely flawed. Second, none of the military or intelligence databases used to validate targets contained the correct location of the Chinese Embassy. Third, nowhere in the target review process was either of the first two mistakes detected."

"U.S. officials who had served in Belgrade were aware that the Chinese Embassy had moved sometime in 1996. The information, however, was not entered into the data bases we rely on for our targeting and mapping."


"Of course, everything is overshadowed, as we expect, by this one very, very bad mistake."

-NATO spokesman Jamie Shea

#2: They tried and failed numerous times to assassinate Fidel Castro. Exploding cigars? Did they really think that would work?

"If surviving assassination were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal." -Fidel Castro

#3: Bay of Pigs.

#4: Failed to predict Iranian Revolution- even when crowds were chanting "Down with the Shah!" and "Death to America!"

#5 Gave money and weapons to Pakistan's ISI, which in turn gave money to groups like Al-Qaida.

#6 Some guy shot a bunch of CIA employees outside the entrance to CIA headquarters.

Honorable mention: During a meeting to plot the overthrow of the Sandanista regime, former CIA director William Casey mangled the name of Nicaragua, saying something like "Nicawawa." This prompted someone to exclaim "You can't overthrow the government of a country whose name you can't pronounce!"

The standard retort to these incidents is to say that the CIA's failures are public while their successes remain secret. This is not true either. The CIA has managed to overthrow and handful of governments in poor, unstable countries (Guatemala & Chile). How much expertise is required to do that?

Since the CIA is the organization responsible for monitoring the activities of foreign governments, you'd think that they'd have a lot of people who can speak more than one language. However:

"In 1984, President Reagan's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board found that only 20 percent of the CIA officers in the Mexico City station had even a working knowledge of Spanish."


OK, out of date, but I imagine the situation has not changed much.

I'll conclude by paraphrasing Lewis Black. They should just put me in charge of the CIA, because I can read Newsweek and guess as well as anyone else.

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