A ecret ­government institution will always occupy an uncomfortable and uncertain place within an open society. In the United States, this tension has led to the creation of a parallel world in which secrecy is the norm and importance is measured by level of classification. This world both sucks in and regurgitates huge amounts of information, but that word itself is felt to be in bad taste, almost taboo. We prefer the fraught term “intelligence,” defined as information we should probably keep hidden from our enemies. Since everyone is an enemy until proven otherwise, intelligence, both raw and finished, ultimately means information an elected government can legally keep hidden from its own electorate. That’s the glamor and the burden of this mysterious world.

Few people get rich off intelligence. The 2022 budget for civilian intelligence programs totaled $65.7 billion, chickenfeed by U.S. government standards. (Medicare, to pick a budget item out of the air, gobbled up $767 billion.) A few contractors may rise to affluence, but intelligence officers don’t go into the work for the money. In my experience, they are the most mission-­obsessed U.S. government workers not in uniform. Despite the Hollywood treatment and super-cool “shaken, not stirred” image, it’s a ­decidedly middle-class existence. Aldrich Ames, a “mole” or double agent, was caught because he maintained, thanks to Russian largesse, a lifestyle conspicuously beyond what his GS-14 salary could afford.

The world of secrets—somewhat wistfully known as the “intelligence community”—is home to ­many agencies, but the gaudy Trump Tower on the block is and always has been the CIA. Given its combination of secrecy and notoriety, the CIA inevitably appears to the open world as a series of contradictory myths. For some, it is composed of ­torturers who love to overthrow democratic governments (in one film from the nineties, a character says, “I’m CIA and I knock down airliners for breakfast”). For others, it is made up of dashing agents on horseback who defeated the abominable Taliban and rescued U.S. diplomats from the clutches of the ayatollahs. Many agree with the late Senator Daniel Patrick ­Moynihan, who felt the Agency was a bungling, useless bureaucracy and introduced a bill to abolish it entirely. Just as many consider the CIA to be a sort of Eye of Sauron, seeing all and knowing all. In Latin America, for decades, it was universally believed that not a sparrow fell unless it was ordained by “the Company.”

Each myth has a basis in fact, and the case can be made that everything depends on which part of the invisible elephant one happens to be grasping. In my opinion, the difficulty with assessing the CIA’s performance goes deeper than that: There’s a fundamental confusion about what the ­organization is supposed to do. Is it spying? ­Covert action? Influence-­peddling? Information-­gathering? Prophesying future developments? CIA staffers are exceptionally ­mission-driven—but what, exactly, is the mission? Since the end of the Cold War, the confusion has seeped into the seventh floor at Langley. Even as the internet was ­unleashing a tsunami of open information of tremendous “intelligence value,” the director could be heard ­repeating the refrain, “Our job is stealing ­secrets.”

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