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arts&sciences | Fall 2011

Joseph Wippl is the director of graduate studies for BU's Department of International Relations. He formerly served as the CIA's chief of Europe Division and director of Congressional Affairs.

More Cloak, Less Dagger

A decade of chasing terrorists may have distracted the intelligence community from the bigger picture. CIA veteran Joseph Wippl suggests the nation's spies need to take a longer-term view.

By Andrew Thurston

Are you surprised by President Obama's increased use of covert lethal force, such as the CIA drone strikes in Yemen?
Not at all. The president is obviously a big proponent of this type of covert action. In the future, it—or the type of covert action that we saw in the assassination of Osama bin Laden—is increasingly going to take place in lieu of having 100,000 American troops running around Afghanistan or somewhere in the Middle East. The other thing that's really interesting is that the role of the Central Intelligence Agency has become more and more covert action and less and less espionage.

Will that be damaging in the long run?
I'm fond of saying, "If we wanted to know about Iraq, we should've started 30 years ago, not when it became a problem," but I think in the American mentality, we like the idea of friends and enemies. Do you collect intelligence because someone is your enemy or because someone is important? My view is, you collect intelligence because someone or something is important, not necessarily because they're hostile.

What's the CIA missing by concentrating on terrorism?
It's missing whole areas of the world that are going to be important in the future. We're very concerned about terrorism, but not enough about developments in a country's politics, society, and so on. As an example, I'm not sure that we know a whole lot, or have known a whole lot, about the opposition elements in Egypt: Do we know a lot about the Muslim Brotherhood? Do we know a lot about the opposition in Jordan? I have a feeling that these are areas that are being neglected because you have to have a really long-term view; you have to have knowledge for knowledge's sake, so that it'll come in very handy when you do need it.

But many candidates for elected office in the U.S. are taking a more insular view of the world.
It's ironic, I think, in a more globalized world that we, as a country, are becoming more isolated. If you ask me why that is the case, I'm not exactly sure. Is it because we are so enveloped in our own issues that we really don't have much of an interest or feel for what's going on in the rest of the world? You are certainly getting a lot of representatives who have not had any experience overseas. When I was in Berlin [during a CIA overseas assignment], the ambassador was Senator Dan Coats and he remarked that it'd be a good idea if every representative started out by spending a couple of years in a U.S. embassy somewhere. It is a real problem.

Do the death of bin Laden and the troop drawdown in Afghanistan make the CIA a target for budget cuts? Many have argued that post-Cold War cuts prevented the agency from effectively tracking the rise of Islamic terrorist groups.
The budget has probably been doubled—if not more—in the last ten years. It was a mistake to cut the intelligence budgets pretty drastically after the Cold War during the Clinton administration. As you're cutting military budgets, the one thing you don't want to cut is your intelligence budget because that is your focus for the future. Intelligence is there to give an understanding of the world to the policy maker.