I'm all for pruning a bloated Pentagon budget, but there is something about the recent "downsizing" announcement of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (himself a former CIA Director) that bothers me – the underlying assumptions of clairvoyance. Making difficult choices among weapons systems, of course, requires years of planning and implementation and that means decision-makers must have a clear vision of the kinds of military action in which the US might be engaged in the near future. I'm just not certain that vision should be so heavily weighted toward our current threat assessments. In the past, irresistible strategic projections based on momentary needs gave rise to the wry cliché, "fighting the last war", and still bring to mind the brilliant inanity of the Maginot Line. Maybe our current guesses are right. Or maybe not. And if not, how much manpower and scarce treasure may be required to rectify the error?
Foreseeing future threats and enemies and counter-measures is all the more necessary – and the more hazardous – for CIA and the Intelligence Community. It takes time to build espionage networks, just as it takes time to build high-tech fighter planes. Yet CIA has always been, and should continue to be, the most flexible instrument of the national security establishment, the "tail" on the military dog. If and when threats suddenly change, the Agency must be ready, with relatively little lead time, to fight the next war.
The Agency was apparently not ready for the consequences of 9/11. That, however, is not an argument for assuming that the disorderly world of terrorists and pirates in which we now find ourselves will be the inevitable face of things to come.
That worries me. Developments in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Teheran often worry me – as much, frankly, as terrorism and piracy. And I'm concerned that some sudden resurgence of what was once called the "balance of terror" might find CIA geared up for the wrong war, without the luxury of time to switch gears.
There is at least one way in which Mr. Panetta's Agency might plan for maximum "flexible response" in abruptly changing times. It will not be a popular idea among President Obama's progressive admirers, but the very fact that an avowed and savvy liberal Democrat is now Director of CIA might at least remove some of the more odious past trappings from the controversial subject of - Covert Action.
Some believe as an absolute principle that no lofty ends in world politics justify secret means. I suspect that Director Panetta, Mrs. Clinton and President Obama know the real world too well to share that wondrous naiveté. If I'm right, this may be an ideal moment to quietly begin hard thinking in Washington about a more sophisticated and momentous purpose for CIA than a stern chase of some modern Long John Silver or firing missiles from UAVs at ever-elusive Bad Guys in the Khyber Pass.