Why are we asking this now?
The CIA is currently embroiled in two controversies that go to the heart of the problems surrounding the world's largest intelligence agency. It is accused of keeping Congress in the dark about a secret post-9/11 project, on the orders of the former vice-president Dick Cheney and probably in violation of the law. Meanwhile the Justice Department is moving towards a criminal investigation of whether CIA operatives illegally tortured captured terrorist suspects. A rule of thumb about an intelligence service might be: the less you hear about it, the better it's probably doing its job. Instead, the CIA seems to be eternally in the headlines.
But hasn't that always been the case?
Indeed. Almost from its inception in 1947, at the start of the Cold War, the agency has made news. In 1953, it staged the Operation Ajax coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran (with repercussions that continue to this day). In 1961 came the humiliating failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the most spectacular of many unavailing efforts by the CIA to get rid of Fidel Castro.
After other abuses were revealed, including the agency's tangential involvement in Watergate, the agency's sins were subjected to an unprecedented public investigation by the Church Committee, under Senator Frank Church of Idaho, in the mid-1970s. But that did not prevent further scandals, notably the 1985/86 Iran-Contra affair, in which the CIA had an important role.
So why doesn't the CIA work better?
One reason is the historic fragmentation of US intelligence operations. At the last count, 16 separate government agencies were involved in intelligence. Of them, the CIA has always been the most important, but formally only primus inter pares. The consequence was bureaucratic infighting that severely strained relations with the Pentagon and with the FBI in particular. The inability of the CIA and the FBI to share information was one reason why 9/11 went undetected, and although the Intelligence Reform Act, passed by Congress in 2004, was supposed to address that, it only did so up to a point.
The Act set up the post of Director of National Intelligence, in overall charge of all US intelligence. It is, for instance, no longer the CIA but the DNI who provides the daily intelligence briefing for the President. The CIA director now reports to the DNI, and the multitude of agencies do seem to be working together more effectively. But the Act did not address the CIA's real problems: the way in which its paramilitary side often operated outside the law, and its basic competence in its core field of intelligence gathering.
How come the CIA has a paramilitary side?
It has been there almost from the outset. In 1948 the agency was specifically empowered to carry out subversion and sabotage and "support of indigenous anti-communist movements in threatened countries." There have been fiascos (like the Bay of Pigs), and the illegal overthrow of democratic governments (for example Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973). But some such operations have been hugely successful – take the clandestine support for the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, which contributed mightily to the subsequent fall of communism in the Soviet Union.
Are these operations out of control?
Yes and no. Back in 1947 Dean Acheson, later to become Secretary of State, said he had "the gravest forebodings" about the fledgling CIA, warning that no one – not even the President – would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it. More recently however, especially during the "war on terror", the greater risk has seemed the opposite: that the agency could be a de facto private army for the President (or in the case of Dick Cheney, for the vice-president). Bypassing Congress and the Pentagon, it could act as it pleased (and did, by setting up secret camps abroad, torturing terrorist suspects, or kidnapping them and sending them for torture elsewhere, even though in some cases the victims were completely innocent). But you could equally argue the CIA is not under-regulated, but over-regulated.
Spy agencies in democracies the world over face conflicting pressures. By definition they work in secret, often in unmentionable matters of national security. But they must also be publicly accountable. In no democracy is this tension more institutionalised than in the US – as this latest affair involving the former vice-president underlines. On this occasion, Mr Cheney and the CIA may have broken the law, violating the agency's duty to "fully and currently inform" Congress about its activities. But sometimes oversight by Congress hurts the agency.
In the 1990s, for instance, lawmakers complained that too many unsalubrious people were on the CIA's foreign payroll. The agency had to shed many employees, to the detriment of its operations. More broadly, the constant threat of public scandal, Congressional meddling, and a rapid turnover in directors, have badly damaged morale.
What about intelligence-gathering?
Almost by definition you hear more of the mistakes of an intelligence agency than of its successes – the bad things that didn't happen because good prior intelligence headed them off. Even so, the CIA's failures are huge. 9/11 happened despite its best efforts. It was wrong about Saddam Hussein's non-existent WMD. It was slow to see the economic weakness, and then the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It missed India's nuclear test of 1998, which prompted a series of counter-tests by Pakistan.
How much does it all cost?
The total US intelligence budget is classified, but is reckoned to be in the region of $40bn. The CIA itself reportedly has 20,000 employees, though that figure too is classified. In fact the bulk of spending is believed to go on hi-tech agencies like the National Security Agency, which carries out global electronic surveillance and eavesdropping, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates reconnaissance satellites.
So is the US just not very good at spying?
There's surely some truth in that. Unlike, say, Israel (or even Britain), the US has never had to rely on intelligence for its survival. The US system is probably too open, while Americans by nature are simply more comfortable with the quantifiable (numbers, statistics, blanket phone intercepts, satellite pictures and the like) than with "humint" – the subtler, sometimes treacherous, but ultimately even more precious human intelligence from flesh-and-blood sources, that Washington lacked so conspicuously in Iraq.
After the Cold War, Richard Helms, one of the most venerated intelligence professionals in US history (and the only CIA director convicted of lying to Congress) remarked that "the only remaining superpower doesn't have enough interest in what's going on in the world to organise and run an espionage service." The 9/11 attacks have surely dispelled that insouciance, but perhaps not the underlying mentality.
Why not just abolish it?
Some, notably Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late New York Senator, have urged precisely that. The US, they argue, would be better off closing down the CIA and turning its intelligence operations over to the State Department and its paramilitary side to the Pentagon, ending what they see as little more than a national embarrassment.
Does the US need the CIA?
Every country needs an agency with "deniability" in order to carry out its dirty work
*The latest re-organisation of US intelligence must be given time to work
*For all its failings, the CIA has had its share of successes and still performs a valuable service
The agency has done a great deal wrong and inflicted huge harm to America's international image
*It is too large and unwieldy, and more trouble than it's worth
*It is too easily used by presidents to circumvent the constitution, and without its independence its real value is lost