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Fall 1998

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 98 > Article

Spies in the Ointment
After the Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies are stuck on technology.
by Steven N. Koppes

C-I-A. The very letters conjure images of operatives crawling over walls at midnight with daggers in their teeth.

In reality, the CIA and its 12 companion U.S. intelligence agencies are bloated bureaucracies, overly reliant upon technology and in need of a game plan for the post-Cold War era, according to Loch Johnson, a UGA Regents Professor of Political Science.

"There’s no longer any Soviet Union, the nemesis that gained most of the attention of these agencies during the Cold War," Johnson said. "What are these agencies up to now?"

Johnson has participated in two governmental inquiries into the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. The experience led him to write three books on the agencies, and he has a fourth on the way. In the latest book, Johnson will identify what the U.S. intelligence community ought to do now that the Soviet threat has evaporated.

"Weapons of mass destruction are spreading around the world," Johnson said. "It’s the number one job of the CIA to find out where those weapons are going so that our leaders can attempt to halt their spread into the hands of irresponsible people."

Terrorists pose another deadly threat, as demonstrated by the bombings in Oklahoma City and at the World Trade Center in New York City. Illegal drugs, meanwhile, continue to deluge the nation from abroad.

Johnson also suggests broadening the definition of national security to include global health epidemics and environmental threats. Diseases such as the Ebola virus have come to light in Africa and other places, and they could pose a danger to U.S. troops engaged in overseas posts. As for the environment, the CIA could use its sophisticated satellites to monitor the ozone layer and the world’s vanishing rain forests.

"We may all end up dying, not from missiles from Iraq, but from the opening hole in the ozone or some other environmental catastrophe. But all this requires new thinking. In Washington, sometimes that’s asking for too much," he quipped.

Johnson further argues that the 13 intelligence agencies have become bloated from their funding heydays of the 1980s and should be streamlined — and some perhaps even eliminated. He questioned, for example, whether the nation really needs a separate intelligence agency for each branch of the military, along with the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The agencies historically have conducted much of their information gathering with sophisticated technology, including spy satellites and reconnaissance airplanes. World War III never broke out in part because U.S. and Soviet spy satellites would have immediately revealed if the other side were preparing a surprise attack, Johnson said. "It made the Cold War a little less nerve-wracking, a little less likely to go to the brink rapidly."

Nevertheless, Johnson recommended that the agencies shift some of their resources from technology to the development of their human assets around the world. The CIA spends about seven dollars on technology for every dollar it spends on people. Johnson would adjust the ratio to 2-to-1 in favor of technology.

"As fascinating and helpful as these machines are, they can’t see though roofs or buildings," Johnson said. "We need an agent inside these buildings who could attend the secret meetings of our enemies, then let us know, clandestinely later on, what happened."

Johnson began conducting research on the CIA by accident, as the result of an unexpected telephone call from the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho in 1975. The New York Times had just reported that the CIA had been spying on American citizens. Church, for whom Johnson had worked as a former Congressional Fellow, was leading a Senate investigation of all 13 U.S. intelligence agencies. At Church’s invitation, Johnson took leave of his teaching position at Ohio University to participate. The Senate later passed legislation to curb the CIA’s abuses.

Johnson took part in a second investigation in 1995-96, when he served as special assistant to the chairman for the White House Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community. His governmental experiences, along with his archival research and his interviews with current and retired CIA employees, have changed his perception of the agency. Once highly suspicious of the CIA, Johnson now regards it as a necessary feature of international affairs.

"Yes, we do need, if not the CIA, then something like it," he said. "But the work essentially ought to be to gather information about threats to the United States, and analyze it and present it to the president and other top people in a timely fashion."

Johnson’s biggest complaint with the CIA comes in the area of covert action.

"This is where we try to secretly overthrow foreign regimes or attempt to manipulate them in one way or another. Here I think the record is abysmal. We’ve made error after error," especially in the 1960s and the 1980s, Johnson said.

Improper covert operations mostly have stemmed from a lack of oversight. Nobody really watched the CIA from its creation in 1947 until 1974.

"We’ve got to have a strong CIA," he said, "and we’ve got to have some serious people making sure that it stays within bounds."


U. S. Intelligence Agencies

  • Air Force Intelligence
  • Army Intelligence
  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • Department of Energy, Foreign Intelligence Program
  • Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Marine Corps Intelligence
  • National Imagery and Mapping Agency
  • National Reconnaissance Office
  • National Security Agency
  • Naval Intelligence
  • Treasury Department,
  • Office of Intelligence Support

For more information, contact Loch Johnson at johnson@uga.cc.uga.edu

Steven N. Koppes is UGA’s assistant director of research communications and assistant editor of Research Reporter. An award-winning writer, he has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in journalism.


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US Intelligence stuck on technology