By Peter Galbraith
At the end of the Cold War, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, my friend and one-time boss, proposed eliminating the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA, he said, told us everything we needed to know about the Soviet Union, except that it was going to disappear. This omission led to a trillion dollars in unnecessary defense expenditures in the 1980s -- and that was when a trillion dollars was considered to be a lot of money. Moynihan also noted that CIA analysts -- taking at face value East Germany's implausible valuation of its currency at par with that of the West -- once declared that East Germany had a higher standard of living than the Federal Republic. The Agency seemed not to notice that there was no East-bound traffic across the Wall. More recently, the CIA contributed to a trillion-dollar decision to invade Iraq when it asserted Saddam Hussein's possession of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
The CIA includes many very smart people, some of whom take enormous risks for a country. But I would urge caution about blindly accepting its conclusions. As a Russian-speaking high school student, I spent 11 weeks driving through the Soviet Union, staying at campgrounds with ordinary Russians. The country I saw was no competitor for the United States, and this simple on-the-ground experience better informed my view of Soviet power than the highly classified CIA analysis to which I had access as a government official. As ambassador to Croatia during the Balkan Wars, I made extensive use of CIA intelligence and analysis. But, at the key moment, the CIA grossly over-estimated the military capabilities of the Serbian side. They had never been to the Serb-held parts of Croatia or Bosnia, and I had. Fortunately, the Clinton administration did not rely on the CIA's analysis, and we were able to negotiate an end to the Croatian and Bosnian Wars.
The CIA does valuable work and I would not shut it down. Instead, I would urge skepticism about some of its conclusions. Based on past experience, this would save far more money than is at stake in the current budget battles.
Peter W. Galbraith is Former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and former U.N. Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan.