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Facts Behaving Badly: “Excellence by Anonymity”

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

Browsing the interwebs for our series on Benghazi, I came across this paragraph on the blog “The XX Committee”:

“And let it be said that the IC has lots of smart, dedicated people, who protect you, dear citizens, while you sleep, and prevent Bad Things from going down, more often than not. As they unfailing point out, the public usually hears only about the ball-droppings, when something gets screwed up like Benghazi, while a dozen big successes that same season stay secret for decades.”

The above statement is repeated so often it has become axiomatic in political discourse. In short, you--the public--never hear about most of the good things the CIA does. You only hear about the bad things. As David Brooks said once about the CIA, “They’re all doing it in secret, and no one will ever know what they do.” As Eric C wrote about last week, O’Donnell tells Mendez in Argo, “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.”

I call it the CIA’s “excellence in anonymity” argument, which even the CIA itself believes. In the DCI’s annual report from 1999 they wrote,

"During FY 1999, the IC made critical and important contributions to advance our national security strategy...This report includes only those achievements that can be described without risk to sensitive sources and methods."

I am officially calling this out as a “Fact Behaving Badly”. If anything, the opposite is true: the CIA loves to hype itself to Hollywood; it also buries its worst screw ups behind a giant wall of federally-enforced secrecy.

Let’s start with the first part, “you never hear about all the good things the CIA does.” Sure we do. And who do we hear it from? The CIA’s PR machine. On The Media covered this a few months back with Ted Gup. The CIA really cares about its image:

“I saw a significant shift beginning in the nineties, where the agency's concern for its public image here at home became increasingly expressed and its campaign to win over the American public increasingly sophisticated. And that's when you saw this profusion of memoirs written by former operatives.

“I saw a tremendous amount of leaking, and I know that my colleagues in the press have as well. They have their own liaison in Hollywood who works with filmmakers when the films are deemed not to be overtly hostile to the agency. Over the last 20 years, the agency that once simply invoked “neither confirm nor deny” has become something of a spigot for stories that continually flow to the press.”

Ted Gup described in a New York Times op-ed just how many memoirs are out there all approved by the CIA:

“What message did it send when George J. Tenet, its former director, refused to explain the intelligence debacle involving nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but later got a seven-figure book contract and became a highly paid speaker? How is it that Milton Bearden, a former covert operative, got agency permission to write a book (“The Main Enemy”) with a New York Times reporter? What of the many memoirs written by ex-spooks like Robert Baer (“See No Evil,” and, with his wife, another former C.I.A. operative, “The Company We Keep”), Tony Mendez (“The Master of Disguise”), Lindsay Moran (“Blowing My Cover”), Melissa Boyle Mahle (“Denial and Deception”) and Floyd L. Paseman (“A Spy’s Journey”)?”

The CIA always advertises its successes. Most notably, everyone on the planet knew within hours Osama bin Laden was dead. But it doesn’t stop there. The CIA, ironically, publishes press releases about dead terrorists in Pakistan, while denying its own drone program which killed the terrorist. Hell, not one but two (two!) of this year’s Best Picture nominees were about the CIA’s successes.

Surely, though, we hear about all the bad things the CIA does, like the Bay of Pigs disaster. Man, we all heard about that.

If only.

The CIA, for instance, detained about 70% of the wrong people in Guantanamo. As we wrote two years ago, Guantanamo had the lowest recidivism rate of all time, meaning...Guantanamo either scared all the potential terrorists straight...or it had rounded up the biggest group of innocent people on the planet. It also extraordinarily renditioned Khalid El-Masri, who had to go to 60 Minutes to tell his story. The CIA hasn’t officially acknowledged this. Nor would it openly, willingly or tranparently reveal this fact...until it had to.

There was also that whole “Iraq WMDs intelligence” thing, where German intelligence out-analyzed the CIA. If it were up to the CIA, we never would have heard about that. Only due to a congressional investigation did the colossal intelligence failure come to light. This begs the question, was that intelligence failure unique or does the CIA (and larger intelligence community) manage to hide or obscure most of its screw-ups, especially when they aren’t of national consequence? I would bet the latter.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that you don’t know when the Intelligence Community keeps you safe. You do; they’ll make a movie about it. And don’t believe them when you only hear the bad things; most of those things are so far classified you won’t ever probably hear about it.

But the CIA, NSA, JSOC and other intelligence agencies have fantastic pull with the press and (established over the few decades) excellent PR machines. So this fact won’t die. Unfortunately.

two comments

Another great post….I always wondered why more bombers were caught by passengers on airlines or homeowners than by strung along dupes with bombs with FBI manufacturer stamps. I’m sure secrecy needs to be maintained and some successes buried to keep deep cover personel safe and useful but rehash of 1970 or 1980’s ops, c’mon. Any way just ask Bond about the CIA. LOL


Thanks Carl. This actually might be a bit of a theme with us in the coming weeks because the Oscar films relate so well to the Snowden/NSA debates raging over secrecy, transparency and effectivess.