The CIA's Raison d'tre

The new director should focus on better, rather than bigger, ideas

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George Tenet, who was confirmed last Thursday as director of central intelligence, has been on the receiving end of plenty of free advice as he takes the reins of America's chief spy agency. Here's some he likely hasn't heard but should heed: Beware of big ideas.

Nearly every writer on foreign affairs these days is trying to come up with the next great unified field theory of international politics. Commentators, academic theorists, and even policymakers have offered any number of contending concepts to supplant the once-dominant frameworks of "containment" and "deterrence."

These authors entertain the hope that their arguments, like the cold-war-era concepts they are meant to supplant, will demonstrate such explanatory power that they will be regarded as the foundation for building new approaches to our study of global politics, our institutions for foreign policy, and even our language for speaking of the world.

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Think of how some of the more influential ideas on offer, if actually realized as real-world schemes, would change the landscape of US foreign policymaking:

* Establishing a department of civilizational conflict, replete with assistant secretaries for Islamic, Confucian, and Hindu affairs.

* Turning the Commerce Department into an agency for strategic trade management, with situation rooms for managing disputes with the increasingly competitive European, South American, and East Asian blocs - as well as within the North American one.

* Preparing a new generation of leaders for positions in a federal agency for spreading democracy, as skilled in building up other countries' political parties and trade unions as the American military once was in strengthening other countries' armies.

Mr. Tenet will take over an agency chiefly responsible for explaining the complexities of a world riven by discord to policymakers with little time for, and less interest in, details. He will quickly find himself under tremendous pressure to find the "next great idea" to guide how the CIA collects intelligence, analyzes its significance, and counters other nations' spies. The clients of the agency - the president, senior cabinet officials, and decisionmakers throughout the government - will demand of him the key to unlock the intractable tribal conflicts endangering America's interests.

The answer Tenet is best advised to give will not be a popular one. It is that we should stay away from such big ideas. The CIA - and American foreign policy generally - should focus on the smaller-scale areas of expertise that have more to contribute to full deliberation and sound policy choices.

The US needs to strain intellectual muscles that haven't been exercised for a while - developing stronger expertise in understanding ethnicity, religious belief, nationalism, or race as potential sources of international tension and conflict. More difficult, America must recognize the risks to its security that arise from questions even less tractable than weapons proliferation or religious radicalism - dangers that, like endemic corruption in the governments of both adversaries and allies alike, have their roots not in military, but in moral sources.

Rather than big ideas, then, the CIA should simply settle for better ideas. These might be achieved by:

* Investing more in the training of the next generation of intelligence analysts. America's intelligence agencies know they need to widen their range of analytic expertise in order to meet the challenges of a changed world. Resources should be directed toward supporting graduate training for specialists in such areas as ethnography, cultural anthropology, linguistics - even comparative religion. A selective scholarship program could greatly strengthen the acuity of our intelligence.

* Improving exchanges between analysts and academics. The best experts available on many of the risks we face are not in the government, but in universities and think tanks. Since the revelations of CIA misbehavior in the 1970s, academic exchanges have been problematic. Some progress has been made in recent years to bridge the gap, but the CIA should intensify the effort. The National Intelligence Council has served constructively as a point of interaction between the closed world of intelligence and the open inquiry of academe; this role should be emphasized.

* Diversifying recruiting. Today there are more Muslims than Episcopalians in America - but you wouldn't know it by walking the halls of CIA headquarters. It is commonplace to say that the diversity of American society is a source of great strength. But that source cannot be tapped unless recruitment policies emphasize the importance of finding Americans from a broader range of cultural backgrounds who are both able and willing to serve their country loyally.

Sadly for Tenet, arguing the case for a careful and comprehensive approach to the increasingly diverse risks confronting American interests will not win many friends. Just two years ago Dan Glickman, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, boasted proudly of his scrutiny in questioning whether the agency should be concerning itself with "studies of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America, AIDS, or Norwegian whaling policy."

The answer, of course, is yes. While it is necessary to establish priorities and allocate resources in accord with risks, there are a plethora of issues affecting US security that have been neglected for too long because they have been considered unimportant.

Tenet ought not to bother with the game of shaping the next "grand scheme." Instead, he should set about making the CIA what its creators hoped it would be - a place that acknowledges the importance of analytical expertise across the myriad questions that shape opportunities and challenges to US interests, thus improving the prospect for wisdom in American foreign policy.

* Mark Edington is secretary of the Boston Committee on Foreign Relations. This essay is drawn from his article in the Spring 1997 issue of Daedalus.

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