A Bangkok tour guide’s quip and the campaign to abolish the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave me the idea: There could be no better way to signal a new administration’s intent to chart a new foreign policy course than to dissolve the Central Intelligence Agency.
The tour guide worked at the Jim Thompson House, a major tourist attraction comprising multiple traditional Thai structures collected by an American expatriate who played a major role in reviving the Thai silk industry post-World War II. His story ends in a mystery, though: In 1967, he went for a walk during a visit to Malaysia and was never seen again. The guide ran through various theories and possibilities of what might have been behind his disappearance — including the CIA. It was only then that I understood the degree to which the CIA had become a worldwide joke. Not the sort of joke you laughed at, but a symbol of the fact that the U.S. government regarded the rest of the world’s laws as a joke.
Most Americans are not all in on this joke, however, to the point where the New York Times writes that outed former CIA agent Valerie Plame is “celebrating her C.I.A. past in a race for a congressional seat” in New Mexico. Ms. Plame’s personal history and career aside, knowing the places where and why the CIA’s past is definitely not celebrated is a reasonable place to start the search for an answer to the bewildered American’s classic foreign policy question: “Why do they hate us?”
Iranians, for example, generally know about the CIA’s role in overthrowing their Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s government in 1953: Americans generally don’t. Likewise with Guatemalans and Americans in regard to the successful 1954 military coup against Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz.
On the other hand, a lot of more recent info on CIA activity is readily available. We need go no further than current headlines to find former CIA contract psychologist James Mitchell testifying of telling a 9/11 plot suspect, “I will cut your son’s throat” — but only after first checking with the CIA legal department, and after having waterboarded the suspect 183 times. Likewise, the agency’s accrual of the status of a defacto military branch authorized to bomb foreign countries through drone strikes is also readily available information.
So even though much of the agency’s history remains shrouded in official secrecy, enough of it is known to suggest that its actions have been such that, if there were another country that matched the U.S. both in its military strength and its approach to the world beyond its borders, it might well at some point have assassinated the Director of the CIA, just as the U.S. recently killed General Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
But the reality is that there is no so such foreign country, just as there is no foreign governmental entity that can match the CIA’s record of meddling in the affairs of other nations. The lowlights of this history include involvement in the 1961 assassination of the Republic of the Congo’s Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba; the same year’s Bay of Pigs invasion; the plots to assassinate Cuban Prime Minster Fidel Castro, in cooperation with American mobsters aggrieved by Cuba’s seizure of their assets (which adventures prompted President Lyndon Johnson to privately complain that the CIA had been running “a goddamn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean”); the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende; and the 1980s contra war against the Nicaraguan government. The CIA has been in the midst of other countries’ business from Angola to Zaire, from Australia to Zambia; frequently illegally, frequently violently. The agency’s wings were somewhat clipped back by Congress in the 1990s, but it came roaring back to relevance with its post-9/11 “extraordinary renditions” and “black detention sites.”
And yet, many will reasonably argue that at least some of the CIA’s work remains valid, as intelligence work remains a real world necessity. After all, isn’t it the case that unlike, say, the Trump Department of Energy, the CIA recognizes the fact that climate change poses a genuine challenge to global stability? True, all that. Which is where the campaign to abolish ICE provides an example of how to move forward.
Simply put, the bill introduced by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), for instance, would terminate the agency by transferring “necessary functions to other agencies,” perhaps returning them to the Justice Department which conducted them before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The idea is that while immigration processing and enforcement remains a legitimate governmental function, ICE’s past performance has so thoroughly compromised the agency that the slate simply needs to be wiped clean of its very existence.
So far as historical demerits go, those of the CIA probably match those of ICE tenfold. And while foreign policy remains a relatively remote concern for most Americans, the fact is that just as our wasteful energy policies are not sustainable in the long run in our ever more connected world, neither is our aggressive foreign policy. And breaking up the CIA would be just the way to tell the world that the U.S. finally reads the writing on the wall.