One of the frustrations is that when you do a good job you can't even tell your close friends about it. That is a price of the secrecy the CIA wishes it no longer had to pay. America's lead intelligence agency would like nothing more to celebrate its 50th anniversary this weekend than an opportunity to crow about what it believes to be a chronicle of glorious successes. Yet the public being aware only of a litany of spectacular foul-ups, the idea has taken hold that the CIA is inept, demoralised and possibly a lavishly funded irrelevance in the post-Cold War age.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic senator from New York, was asked in a recent television interview if he held to the view he once expressed that the CIA should be abolished. He replied: "There is a sense in which it has been abolished. There have been seven directors, or acting directors, in six years. That's not an organisation. That's an institutional collapse."
Milton Bearden, a 30-year veteran of the CIA who ran its Moscow station, noted this year that among the government bureaucracies "only the Internal Revenue Service is held in lower esteem".
But while taxes, like the poor, are always with us, the CIA is a luxury the American people may come to decide, concurring with Mr Moynihan, that they no longer wish to afford.
America's Secret Warriors, a documentary series about the CIA that was aired in the US in March, concluded with the thought: "Today the CIA's greatest mission may be saving itself. There are some who think it is a mission impossible."
The documentary provides a succession of former CIA officers who verify on-camera a list of allegations about the agency that God-fearing, patriotic Americans used to think were too wild to be true.
Organising the military coup in Guatemala in 1954 because the democratically elected government had antagonised an American fruit company which had ties to the Secretary of State and director of the CIA; fuelling the coups that installed the Shah in Iran, Augusto Pinochet in Chile; the ludicrous plots to kill Fidel Castro; the tribesmen in Laos who received a dollar of US tax-payers' money for every set of Communist ears they delivered to the CIA; the decision to mine a Nicaraguan harbour during the Contra war that was taken one night after a few too many Martinis.
The suspicion, widely expressed by intelligence analysts these days, is that the Cold War provided a curtain behind which to hide the CIA's follies and abuses, the depth of which became common knowledge after the devastating revelation in 1994 that Aldrich Ames, a hard-drinking senior CIA officer, had sold secrets to the CIA which led to the killing of at least 10 CIA informers in Russia.
In March this year it emerged that Harold Nicholson, higher up the CIA pecking order than the now jailed Ames, also sold secrets to the Russians.
Before that there were the embarrassing frissons with the French and Germans after the CIA's blunt attempts at economic espionage were exposed. As for the agency's custom of hiring murderous Latin American colonels and teaching others the techniques of torture, the stories are endless.
The most powerful enemy the CIA has today is not Communism, or terrorism, or anything beyond America's frontiers. The threat comes from within, most convincingly from those who once led the agency but have come to acknowledge its purpose is at best unclear, at worst non-existent.
Three former CIA chiefs quoted in Sunday's New York Times said the time may have come to give the CIA a decent burial. Richard Helms, CIA director 1966-1973, observed 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".
Mr Helms's successor, James Schlesinger, said the CIA was now "so battered that it's utility for espionage is subject to question". Stansfield Turner, the agency's director 1977-1981, believes the US has to build a new espionage service from scratch. That is the view of Mr Moynihan and one a critical mass of members of Congress may come share.
The intelligence committee of the House of Representatives issued a report on the agency that criticised its failure to acquire "the analytic depth, breadth and expertise to monitor political, military and economic developments worldwide".
No judgement more damning or comprehensive would seem possible, which might explain why in a recent speech the CIA's inspector-general, Fred Hitz, was moved to remark, with extraordinary candour: "We're a confused group, dying for stability."
Decoded, what Mr Hitz perhaps meant to say was that the confusion would only end, stability would only come, with the CIA's demise.Reuse content