It is a good thing the CIA is now out of the overseas prison business. Black sites, waterboarding and renditions were never really the CIA’s strong suit. Classical espionage, the CIA’s bread and butter, has nothing to do with coercion. And that is not to mention that the prisons have stigmatized the CIA with the worst abuses of the Bush White House. In any case, it is the military that should be holding and handling prisoners of war, not the CIA.
The prison work has also been a serious drain on CIA resources. In Thursday’s announcement, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that in closing the prisons, the agency would save $4 million per year on contractors. What he didn’t mention was that hundreds of CIA staffers were involved in overseeing the prisons. The tail to tooth ratio in the CIA is no different from any other government agency.
Closing the prisons will put an end to a major distraction. But it shouldn’t stop there. If Panetta can get away with it at the White House, he needs now to slash the CIA stations in Iraq and Afghanistan by at least half. The stories I hear from Baghdad and Kabul all run in the same direction: people falling over each other chasing a few sources, all frustrated that they are not allowed to get out more because of the very real risk of kidnapping or assassination.
And it is not as if either Iraq or Afghanistan is helping to train a new generation of officers. Sallying forth from Baghdad’s Green Zone in a heavily armored SUV, surrounded by phalanx of contractors carrying M-4’s, and picking up a source on a dark street corner is not classical espionage. As one CIA officer put it, “People coming back from Baghdad and Kabul have to unlearn everything they learn there.”
There’s also the problem that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ripping apart families. A CIA officer posted in a war zone for three or four successive one-year tours risks coming home to face divorce or the alternative of leaving the CIA. It’s a shame because the CIA right now is actually attracting the best and the brightest, possibly the best recruits since its founding in 1947.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not unlike Vietnam, which in the ’60s and ’70s was a distraction from spying on the main enemy, the Soviet Union. Vietnam was a voracious maw that never stopped sucking in people and resources. And no matter how much the CIA threw into it, it never tipped the scales. It took the CIA at least a decade to put Vietnam behind it.
The CIA needs to get back to what it does best, find and turn that Pakistani intelligence officer who knows where Osama bin Laden is today. Or turn that Iranian nuclear scientist who can tell us how close Iran is to having a bomb. Neither was ever going to be found in the prisons in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know