Max Boot: Why the OSS Succeeded and the CIA Is Failing

Roundup: Historians' Take

Max Boot, in the Los Angeles Times (July 22, 2004):

If you want to know what's wrong with the CIA — and these days who doesn't? — start with the fact that it's almost 60 years old. How many 60-year-olds do you know who take insane risks, rethink cherished shibboleths and produce brilliant flashes of insight? That is what's required to win the war on Islamist terror.

But, like many other prosperous geezers, the CIA would prefer to hit the links and avoid uncouth places where nobody has heard of Metamucil.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of bright, energetic people at the CIA (I've met some of them), but, as the reports of the 9/11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee attest, they work in a sclerotic institution.

Fixing this problem is going to require a lot more than a new intelligence czar — unless the person picked for that post plans to emulate Tom Clancy's fictional hero, Jack Ryan, by personally nabbing bad guys between meetings. What's needed is not another organizational reshuffle but a time machine that would return the CIA to the glory days when it was young and frisky.

The CIA grew out of the Office of Strategic Services, formed in 1942 under the leadership of William Donovan, who wasn't known as"Wild Bill" for nothing. A World War I hero, a wealthy lawyer and an incurable romantic, he molded the OSS into his own image: dashing, slightly madcap and highly effective.

Donovan came from the upper crust, and that's where he recruited from too. As analysts, he hired a who's who of notable scholars, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Walt Rostow and William Langer. Allen Dulles, nephew of one secretary of State and grandson of another, ran the station in Bern, Switzerland. Even Julia Child was on the payroll — before her cook-show fame.

This led to sniffing that OSS stood for"Oh So Social," but Donovan's high-powered recruits did impressive work, often utilizing connections that no humdrum bureaucrat could possibly have cultivated....

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Mark Daniels - 7/23/2004

Maybe your nostalgia for the OSS is a bit tongue-in-cheek. But it should be pointed out that the "dashing, slightly madcap..." culture of that organization, transferred whole to the new CIA, was not always "highly effective." Allen Dulles, who came from OSS to the CIA directorship, had a frequently ineffective tenure at the latter agency, for example. Walt Rostow was hawkish on the war in Vietnam, a conflict it would have been better to pass.

I hope that the CIA's age is not its primary problem. After all, our government is well over 200 years old. But it is clear that the CIA is in bad need of revivication and in that sense, the spirit of Wild Bill Donovan might not be a bad thing. Perhaps that was what the 9/11 Commission meant when it spoke of the need for "imagination" in the intelligence community.