Brent Durbin. The CIA and the Politics of US Intelligence Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 338 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-18740-5.
Reviewed by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones (University of Edinburgh and Scottish Society for the Study of America)
Published on H-FedHist (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)
Brent Durbin, a government professor at Smith College who obtained his doctorate from University of California, Berkeley, sets out to explain the variations in success rate of a series of historical efforts to reform the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). By reform he means the improvement both of the agency’s efficiency and of its civil rights responsiveness.
Durbin sees an inverse relationship between external tensions and the propensity of Congress to press for civil liberties reform: “As the external threats to the country become greater, individuals come to value national defense more highly and concede a certain amount of liberty to its protection.... An inverse dynamic governs constituent interests as outside threats wane” (p. 266). Thus, for example, during the détente of the 1970s there was a congressional challenge to the CIA, but in the wake of 9/11, Capitol Hill went along with the USA PATRIOT Act and other measures that curtailed civil liberties and enhanced the powers of the intelligence community. Durbin feels that the congressional role in shaping the CIA has been underestimated, and that legislators had an impact on efficiency reforms as well as on civil liberties. He believes that if only Congress had been more assertive at the time of the agency’s founding in 1947-9, a period of acute Cold War tension, the CIA might have done a better job of intelligence coordination in its early years, perhaps anticipating the Korean crisis instead of allowing the nation to be taken by surprise.
A well-researched figure on page 13 in some ways provides historians with food for thought, showing as it does value-adjusted fluctuations on the intelligence budget from the 1960s to the present. It looks like an upward ratchet movement but with lower-level plateaux in the 1970s and 1990s, perhaps supporting a parallel theme that the government spends more on intelligence in tenser periods. On the following page, though, the author offers a cautionary extrapolation, for although the intelligence budget increased from twenty-eight billion dollars in 1965 to seventy billion dollars in 2014, it decreased from 4 percent to 2 percent of overall federal expenditure. In a table on page 50, Durbin offers a theoretical model. Looking at selected cases in periods from 1941 to 2015, it suggests that political consensus at home correlates with reform. The only exception was in the 1970s, when muckraking journalism was a substitute driving force.
Those who read The CIA and the Politics of US Intelligence Reform may well be reminded of the work of the distinguished political scientist Harry Howe Ransom, the author of a classic work, The Intelligence Establishment (1970). Durbin does not cite Ransom, and appears to be unaware of his respected essay on the CIA’s “search for legitimacy,” in which he presented a figure, titled “US-USSR Relations, 1948-80,” that anticipates Durbin’s finding on the relationship between foreign policy and libertarian reform of the CIA. Ransom did not employ the multidimensional approach taken by Durbin, took no heed of congressional contributions to CIA efficiency, and gave no explicit attention to issues of consensus, even if they were implicit in his analysis. On the other hand, by comparison with Ransom, Durbin tends to over-complicate, his book abounding with phrases like “political overseers” and “information asymmetries” (p. 256).
Depending on your point of view, Durbin either takes a firm line on certain points of historical interpretation or writes with dogmatic certainty while ignoring what others have said. He is an adherent of the “miracle” theory of the CIA’s genesis. Contrary to post-official historiography, he writes that American intelligence was in bad shape before World War II but British intelligence was brilliant and came to the rescue; William Donovan responded by creating the Office of Strategic Services and thus a central intelligence model for the CIA. Pearl Harbor does not figure in Durbin’s calculations even though it was what concerned Congress most. Without indicating that his view is controversial, Durbin says that the CIA ousted Salvador Allende and thus saved Chile from Sovietization.
In discussing the reform measures that followed in the wake of 9/11, Durbin outlines congressional debates and inquiries, few of them bearing specifically on the CIA. He characterizes the stripping of intelligence coordination from the CIA’s directorship as a change to be welcomed, offering little rationale for that view. How this major development in the history of the CIA and evisceration of civilian intelligence analysis relates to his multidimensional model and complex thesis about reform remains unclear.
. Harry H. Ransom, “Secret Intelligence in the United States, 1947-1982,” in The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the Twentieth Century, ed. Christopher Andrew and David Dilks (London: Macmillan, 1984), 225.
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