My bread and butter is intelligence reporting. I love it. Intelligence reporting is what got me in the Fitzgerald indictment of Libby for a piece I published barely a year after I came to Washington (is it bragging if it’s the truth?). I love hanging around with former agency dudes who have politics very far to the right of mine but who see the world with astonishing, scathing clarity. I love talking to the disillusioned, the still-illusioned and the never-illusioned. I have, to be frank, a love-hate relationship with CIA. So does everyone who works there who is worth talking to.

A couple months ago, The Nation asked me to write an essay hinging off some recent books about the CIA. Like with any complicated relationship, I tried to take stock of what it was, why it was what it was, and how I felt about it. Here’s the (very long) result. Basically, it places CIA within the context of American imperialism and argues that you can’t understand the agency without it.

It is not enough, however, to focus on the performance of the CIA or its partner agencies, as [DNI chief analyst Tom] Fingar rightfully suggested. The CIA is what it is–an unaccountable, dysfunctional and occasionally amoral entity–because America is what it is. If the CIA can’t understand foreign cultures, it’s because America does not educate its citizens to understand foreign cultures. If the CIA can’t see the future, it’s because America, despite its imperial pretenses, isn’t omniscient. If the CIA can’t control the course of foreign events, it’s because America is ambivalent about its status as a superpower. To be shrill about it, the CIA is both a symptom and an accelerant of American imperialism. As several recent books make clear, for all the commissions about reforming the intelligence community, nothing about the CIA will change until America gets out of the empire business. What’s worse is the inconvenient truth that as long as imperial America remains, to dismember or destroy the CIA will only strengthen the fortunes of right-wing militarists within American politics.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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