Espionage is sometimes called the cloak-and-dagger business. That term no longer applies to the Central Intelligence Agency. It was established to collect and analyze information, and — at times — quietly subvert enemies. Now its main job is killing. Instead of running agents, it launches drone attacks. The CIA is becoming a war-fighting machine: no cloak, all dagger.
The latest step in this transformation came last month, when President Trump broadened the CIA’s authority to conduct drone strikes. In the past, many of these strikes have been hybrid operations in which the CIA tracks a target and turns details over to the military, which launches the attack. Now the CIA can launch more strikes on its own. Under newly loosened rules, it may also kill anyone it judges to be a fighter, rather than only leaders, and is no longer required to assert “near certainty” that the targeted person is actually guilty.
New rules will also allow the CIA to wage war in more countries. The first result will be an expanded CIA role in America’s semi-covert war in Syria. After that, CIA drones are likely to begin hitting targets in Yemen. Somalia and Libya would be next. This expansion reflects the steady militarization of American intelligence.
The traditional role of secret services is to find and interpret information. It is a vital part of statecraft. National leaders shape wiser policies when they know how others see the world and what plans they are hatching. Providing that insight was once the CIA’s main job. Most of its undercover officers were devoted to recruiting and cultivating spies. The legendary CIA director Allen Dulles used to boast privately that his list of paid informants included at least one cabinet minister in each West European government.
The CIA, like other secret services, was later torn by debate over how it should collect information. Traditionalists favored continuing reliance on human intelligence, the slow, old-fashioned work of inducing foreigners to betray secrets. Others argued that electronic intelligence and technical surveillance had made traditional agent-running obsolete. All agreed, however, that the CIA’s central challenge was to find the best ways to gather intelligence. It no longer is. Today’s CIA is focused on helping presidents kill foreigners, not understand them.
Presidents have incentives to use the CIA as a secret army. The military is required to announce each drone strike it carries out and to provide an estimate of the dead, including civilians. Its officers are trained in the laws of war, follow established procedures for investigating excesses, and respond to complaints with a modicum of transparency. The military must announce its presence in every country where it operates.
None of this applies to the CIA. It can launch drone attacks without explaining or even acknowledging them. In the two countries where it has already run large-scale drone campaigns, Afghanistan and Pakistan, its involvement was obvious to all, but it admitted nothing. Diplomats at the American embassy in Kabul were instructed to play dumb. They began calling the drones “Voldemorts,” after the character in Harry Potter novels who must not be named.
Although the granting of new killing authority to the CIA may be sold as an efficiency measure, it poses far-reaching dangers. As the CIA becomes a quasi-military agency, it abandons its traditional expertise. The CIA may have a legitimate place in the “kill chain” that leads to the assassination of a suspected militant, but it should not run the whole chain. Giving so much power to a secret service allows it set its own policy goals and use deadly force to achieve them. That is unhealthy in any democracy.
Covert and paramilitary action has always been part of the CIA’s mission. It has forged secret armies, promoted sabotage, worked with death squads, fomented civil wars, and plotted the assassination of foreign leaders. Presidents from Truman to Obama have seen it as offering an alternative to open warfare, a way to fight enemies without deploying masses of troops. None, however, pushed the CIA as close to the front lines as it now is. The old crafts of nurturing agents and analyzing intelligence have fallen out of fashion. We bomb more while understanding less.
Should the military or the CIA lead our seemingly endless man-hunting, drone-firing counterinsurgency war? That is the kind of narrow argument Washington loves to have. The broader question — whether waging this war serves our national interest — remains unaddressed. Using the CIA to run wars is wrong. The larger mistake is believing that any amount of American firepower, directed by anyone, can stabilize the Muslim world or make the United States safer. We are short on wisdom, not drones. If the CIA could illuminate our leaders with accurate insights, it would be doing a far greater service than it does by killing militants on distant battlefields.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.