Melissa Boyle Mahle, educated at Berkeley and Columbia, an Arabic speaker with a degree in Near Eastern studies who had traveled and worked in the Middle East, joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1988. Fourteen years later, in 2002, she left. In between, Mahle was assigned to a series of posts in the region and at headquarters in Langley, though we don’t find out very much about where she served and what she did. Nor do we find out, in the course of this thoughtful, chronological look at the agency since the end of the Cold War, exactly why she left the CIA. “My career was progressing spectacularly,” she writes. “I moved from one assignment in the Persian Gulf to another in the Occupied Territories.” But Mahle “hit a brick wall” in 2001 after an “operational mistake,” otherwise classified and not further elucidated. Whatever it was, the CIA had no interest in explanations or excuses, and an intelligent, well-versed Arab specialist was out of a job. “I was forced out of the Agency, one more living example of an unfair accountability regime,” she says, adding that she departed with “very mixed feelings.”
For all that — and it’s frustrating for the reader not to get a fuller account of precisely what happened — Mahle’s sobering description of the CIA’s evolution since the fall of the Berlin Wall bears little or no evidence of axes to grind. She applies a trained intelligence operative’s eye to the agency she worked for, patiently dissecting its work. And finds it wanting. Mahle doesn’t give us shocking revelations, anecdotes of derring-do, and spy fiction tradecraft. (Her one danger-filled escapade, involving an apparent explosive threat to the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem, is so heavily redacted by CIA censors as to render it virtually incomprehensible.) Instead, Denial and Deception patiently builds the case that the CIA utterly failed to adapt to new environments, twice—once following the end of one war, the Cold War in the late 1980s, and again at the start of a new one, the War on Terrorism, after Osama bin Laden’s four-plane assault.
According to Mahle, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 sent the CIA into a tailspin that lasted a decade. Its budget shrank, its staff shriveled, its prestige declined and morale plummeted. “The CIA began to drift,” she writes. “Its old mission was gone.” William Webster, the director who oversaw the start of that decline, failed to measure up to Bill Casey’s swashbuckling (if tarnished) reputation, and Mahle describes the judge as a gray bureaucrat who “managed — not led — the Agency from a safe distance through his special assistants and by memo.” Terrorism was beginning to rear its ugly head, but Webster eschewed Israeli-style tactics against evildoers in favor of a “law-enforcement approach.” Inside the CIA, Mahle says, Webster was seen as a prophylactic to protect the CIA from congressional meddling and public opprobrium. None of the next directors—not Robert Gates, groomed by Casey, not James Woolsey, the neoconservative-in-drag who clashed with Clinton, and not John Deutch, the technocrat — had a handle on how to fix what was broken. Each came and went, created new offices and new task forces, tinkered with the bureaucratic structure, and shifted resources around. At the start of Gates’s tenure, 60 percent of CIA resources were aimed at Soviet targets. “By the time he left,” she writes, “Russian issues accounted for only 13 percent of the budget.”
For the CIA the 1990s were a confused, and confusing, decade. All of a sudden, everything — and nothing — seemed important. The agency ricocheted from worrying about economic espionage to organized crime to environmental issues like AIDS to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Reorganizations were layered on top of reorganizations. The agency developed a penchant for serving its “customers.” And the list of its customers expanded from the White House and national security agencies to virtually every government department and members of Congress to boot. The CIA’s analysts, observes Mahle, have “increasingly gotten into the business of answering questions from policymakers rather than telling policymakers what they think they should know.”
For Mahle, all of the CIA’s to-and-fro took place against the ominous backdrop of the growing threat of anti-American terrorism by Bin Laden and his fellow Islamists. It is, of course, a view that benefits from 20/20 hindsight. Policy makers and CIA officials both might be forgiven for assuming that the end of the Cold War meant that America was facing a vastly reduced threat from abroad. There seemed to be little reason to imagine an attack anywhere close to what hit the United States in 2001. (Except for Hezbollah, which had struck with deadly accuracy at U.S. forces in Lebanon, the CIA didn’t think a lot about Islamist terror in the mid-1990s, Woolsey once told me.) Mahle describes the CIA’s slow start on tracking Bin Laden. In 1995, when President Clinton signed the executive order that began the scheme of designating terrorist groups, Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda went unnamed. The Bin Laden focus began only in 1996, with the creation of a special task force to study the terrorist mastermind, the first time the CIA had ever created an entire office to target one individual.
Al-Qaeda emerged fully blown as a threat on CIA Director George Tenet’s watch, and Mahle reserves some of her most scathing commentary for Tenet: “Tenet declared war against bin Laden. He really did. Those words came out of his mouth—multiple times,” she says. And each time, Tenet managed to find other, more important priorities: Kosovo, the peace process, Iraq. (Again, without 20/20 hindsight, it seems to me difficult to argue that those, indeed, weren’t more important priorities.) Facing resistance to an aggressive anti-terrorist approach from the Clinton White House, from Congress and from agency bureaucrats, Tenet took the easy way out, says Mahle. “Tenet read the political tea leaves and pursued a conservative, risk-minimizing management strategy.”
Mahle seems excessive in blaming Tenet for failing to target al-Qaeda before 9/11 with the sort of vigor that occurred after 9/11. “Where Tenet failed as the spy chief is in the recognition that al-Qa’ida and ideologically related groups represented an existential threat to the American way of life.” An existential threat? Does al-Qaeda have the power to end America’s existence, in the way, say, the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany did? Of course not. But Mahle is on safer ground when she points out that Tenet’s CIA did not even commission a National Intelligence Estimate on al-Qaeda and that the CIA did not have a good grasp of the nature and extent of Islamist extremism.
On Iraq, Mahle mostly steers clear of the controversy over pre-war intelligence on Iraqi WMD and Saddam’s alleged ties to al-Qaeda. She tells the story of the CIA’s 199596 efforts to destabilize or overthrow Saddam by backing Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, Iyad Allawi’s Iraq National Accord and the Kurds, but her account falls victim to the CIA’s secrecy obsession. Her account of this period, drawn entirely from previously published accounts, ends thus: “The CIA has requested that I redact several paragraphs that discussed a lack of accountability for Iraq operations.” But Mahle makes clear that, whatever the merits of President Bush’s Iraq adventure, it isn’t making America safer. “The decision to occupy Iraq as part of the war on terrorism is a grave mistake,” she asserts. “The occupation has confirmed the suspicions of the Arab people of U.S. neo-Imperialist intentions … and played into the hands of the radical Islamic groups.”
Ultimately, for Mahle, the CIA is a deeply flawed institution. What America needs is a nimble agency designed to anticipate the changing mix of future threats, one that has solid internal checks and balances to prevent abuses, and that has a healthy respect for civil liberties, since we “do not want to live in a police state.” Add Mahle’s book to the stack of volumes — and commission reports — that show all too painfully that we aren’t there yet.