Reforming CIA: An Insider’s View

The Central Intelligence Agency has been in the news quite a bit lately. CIA loves good press, in fact it works rather hard at getting it for an ostensibly top secret agency, but little of this news is edifying. Ten days ago we had the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on post-9/11 torture, which led to global gnashing of teeth and serious stains on the Agency’s reputation, as I explained previously.

Now we have Wikileaks, whose international connections merit more attention than the mainstream media allows, dropping a bombshell leak, namely a 2009 classified report with the mouthful title “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency: Making High Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool” — which, critics inform us, is kind-of evil, because it discusses the efficacy of killing versus capturing bad guys, and apparently nice intelligence agencies aren’t supposed to discuss such things internally. Or something. The Usual Suspects are gleefully telling the world that this is more evidence of CIA’s nefarious nature.

The timing of this leak could not be worse for CIA, politically speaking, coming on the heels of the scathing SSCI torture report, and should not be considered accidental. This will only lead to more anti-CIA venom while hardening the political battle lines in the United States about intelligence matters. Thanks to the Snowden Operation, intelligence matters are much more in the media now than is customary, and there are two basic schools of American opinion on intelligence, CIA very much included, since it gets the most attention from reporters and screenwriters.

There is the view, largely but not exclusively on the Left, that CIA is a nefarious, and perhaps wholly malignant agency whose essential mission is at odds with American values. Its officers are morally dubious on a good day. Worse, they are complete bunglers who cannot be trusted. Tim Weiner’s screed pretending to be a book on CIA history is the more erudite version of this cartoonish view.

There is the other view, largely but not exclusively on the Right, that CIA is a hyper-efficient organization, comprised of pure-hearted American patriots, men (and some women) who are willing to kill and be killed in defense of Americans and their values. Mistakes, when they occur, are primarily due to a lack of toughness when soft-hearted fools inhibit CIA in whatever it does. That this too is a cartoonish view should be obvious.

In contrast to those viewpoints, I’m here to offer a reality-based view of CIA, one that may not be edifying to either Left or Right, but which needs an airing in the public discussion about the Agency and the Intelligence Community generally. As I’ve previously explained, in my intelligence career with NSA I spent time in joint assignments with CIA, and I got to see several parts of it at work, close-up. I have good friends at CIA yet I nevertheless think the Agency needs some serious, perhaps even root-and-branch, reform to meet the challenges of the 21st century. I am of course hardly anti-intelligence, secret services exist for valid reasons even in liberal democracies, yet I believe Americans ought to reject self-pleasing myths about CIA and examine what’s really going on out at Langley.

In the first place, CIA is composed of normal Americans — of all races, backgrounds, beliefs, genders, and sexual orientations — who happen to work for a top secret part of the government. The vast majority of them signed on for the Agency, including its excruciating recruitment process, which includes much unpleasantness with security and polygraphs, out of motives that can be fairly assessed as patriotic. Every day, CIA officers work long hours, at salaries that would not impress Silicon Valley, and some put their lives in real danger to protect this country and its interests. That deserves respect from all of us.

Here we need a brief history lesson, since CIA did not fall from the sky, perfectly preformed, when it was birthed by the National Security Act of 1947, which also gave us the U.S. Air Force as well as a unified Department of Defense plus the National Security Council. Upon its establishment, CIA inherited much of what had been the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence agency led by the charismatic Great War hero William Donovan. “Wild Bill” compensated for his lack of experience with espionage — it was zero — with adventurous zeal and the ear of the president. Unlike Churchill, who took personal interest in real intelligence, dutifully reading every morning’s top ULTRA intercepts, FDR was a dilettante who liked spy stories.

Those Donovan gleefully provided, which was just as well as tales of cloak and dagger derring-do were what the OSS, derided by its many critics as standing for “Oh So Social,” was best at. Serious intelligence work was largely beyond the OSS, since it was created out of whole cloth after Pearl Harbor by people who knew little if anything about espionage. Its operatives, easily stereotyped as Ivy League adventurers long on zeal and short on skills, did little to further the actual war effort — Army intelligence (G-2), which had real work to do, considered the OSS a presidential annoyance to be indulged, at best — but they told great stories.

Then there was the matter of security. OSS was swiss-cheesed top to bottom with foreign agents, mostly Soviet, since Donovan considered counterintelligence to be an unnecessary distraction. Not coincidentally, the only part of OSS that was a clear success was X-2, its small, select, operational counterintelligence shop, which was closely mentored and vetted by the British, who knew how to play the spy game; X-2 was also the only part of OSS cleared for the ULTRA secret (FDR liked Donovan but he was too clever to let his motley band in on many real secrets).

With FDR’s death in April 1945, OSS’s days were numbered, and as soon as World War II ended, Harry Truman, who had a healthy American skepticism regarding secret cowboys like Donovan’s crew, whom the new president derided as a kind of “Gestapo,” killed off OSS. In late 1945. the Army and the State Department absorbed several pieces off the carcass, including the espionage, covert action, and intelligence analysis missions.

These, however, were reassembled in 1947 with the birth of CIA. The nascent Cold War persuaded the skeptical Truman that a genuine peacetime central intelligence function was needed, and CIA was the result. Its express intent was the prevention of another Pearl Harbor. One of the clear lessons learned from that disaster was that some sort of unified intelligence analysis function was needed, since in the months before the Japanese attack on Hawaii, Army and Navy intelligence had various indications of mounting aggression from Tokyo, mainly from signals intelligence, but literally no one was looking at the whole intelligence picture. That CIA would do.

The Agency’s essential structure has changed little over the decades, some alterations to nomenclature notwithstanding, and there are currently four directorates. In reverse order of importance there is the Directorate of Support (DS), which handles logistics and things like finance, human resources, health, and security. While CIA could not function for a minute without the DS, most of its staff are normal government employees who happen to work for a top secret agency.

The Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) gets a bit closer to espionage, and its staff includes lots of smart scientists and engineers who build interesting things and support various forms of technical collection. They are not exactly James Bond, but they provide vital support to the Bonds and much of what they do is justifiably highly classified.

The Bonds, such as they are, belong to the National Clandestine Service (NCS), which was previously called the Directorate of Operations (DO, a term still used by many old hands), while until the early 1970’s it was called the even more euphemistic Directorate of Plans (DP). These are the spies that people make movies about. Colloquially known as case officers — those in the business more accurately term them operations officers — the core of the NCS/DO workforce consists of people whose job it is to collect human intelligence, often by getting foreigners to betray their own countries. NCS/DO staff spend much of their careers abroad and their lives under various forms of cover. In recent years, the operators’ paramilitary Special Activities Division (SAD) has been very busy all over the globe, blurring the line between CIA and the military, especially the Pentagon’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), but the real James Bonds look upon SAD “cowboys” — most of whom previously served with military special units — with a degree of disdain, viewing them as peripheral to the Agency’s core espionage mission.

Even inside NCS/DO there are culture differences that matter. Most case officers work under official cover, posing as diplomats and whatnot, while a select cadre spend their espionage careers under non-official cover — NOCs as they are termed in the trade. These are an elite who do not enjoy the protection of official cover. However, they are expensive compared to official cover officers, and for most of the Agency’s history NOCs have been peripheral, career-wise. The NCS/DO model has its flaws, not least that it is tied closely to the State Department for much of its operations, due to cover issues, while its NOCs are simply not in the same class of professionalism and expertise as what Russians term Illegals, who are true deep-cover operatives. That said, what CIA case officers do they do decently, on the whole, persistent counterintelligence problems notwithstanding. During the Cold War, the better East Bloc security services had a healthy respect for the DO, viewing it as slightly seedy in its frequently ham-handed efforts to use cash to buy treason, but nevertheless a worthy adversary. That remains true today.

The last remaining component of CIA, the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), is something very different and bears no resemblance to James Bond. These are the analysts, the desk-bound types charged with looking at all-source intelligence to provide what CIA terms “finished analysis” to assist national-level decision-making. Their output is methodical, owing much to cliched social science thinking of the 1950’s, while their assessments are famous for their caveated hedging. The newly leaked CIA 2009 study on counterinsurgency, care of Wikileaks, is a very typical DI product: not highly classified — mostly analyst opinion with a bit of actual espionage reporting to back it up — and intended to inform debates rather than decide them. It is important to note that this DI assessment, like all of them, is not guidance of any sort, much less a manual, rather an extended opinion piece, based on supposedly thorough analysis of the problem.

It bears noting that DI analysis is taken more seriously by the DI than anyone else. NCS/DO types rarely read DI product closely, while it often gets more attention from the media, when leaked, than by anyone in the upper echelons of the U.S. Government. To cite a typical case, when I had the job of briefing all-source intelligence to top D.C. decision-makers, most of them liked to get “hot” SIGINT and HUMINT reports, real espionage stuff, but they seldom had time for wordy DI analysis. Being very busy people, they lacked time to read long analysis pieces by DI types who may not actually know what they are talking about. I once had the terrible experience of bringing two “top DI experts” in to brief a cabinet-level official on a certain problem. The CIA “experts” were in their late twenties and had never spent real time in the country they were briefing about, and could not order a beer in the language, while their customer was a man in late middle age who had lived in the country and spoke the language passably well. Within three minutes, it was obvious that the customer knew considerably more about the country in question than the analysts did, and he politely threw them out of his office, with the warning never to return.

There are cultural chasms inside CIA. DI analysts are enamored of things like “analytic tradecraft,” a phrase they use frequently, yet seldom do they speak languages other than English or get outside the Beltway. They also have generated a voluminous scholarly literature about, well, themselves. NCS/DO spooks consider such talk pompous and they usually speak a foreign language or two passably, the by-product of a career spent abroad more often than not (the true DO “field rat” is tough to even get back to Langley for a necessary ticket-punching headquarters tour). For DI types cover is a formality — some analysts attend DC think-tank events under the barest of covers — while for case officers it can be a life-or-death concern. When it comes to politics, most DI analysts are conventional liberals, while NCS/DO types are often hard-boiled cynics who find any ideology silly.

Perspectives differ too. DI analysts, sitting in Langley for the most part, often see a wide range of intelligence but rarely have access to really compartmented programs, while case officers know lots of “good stuff” but seldom see beyond their immediate problems: the NCS/DO by need-to-know design sees the world through a soda straw. Case officers are risk-takers not prone to excessive introspection, while intelligence analysts are very much like graduate students: smart and introspective yet deeply prone to group-think. A friend of long tenure in the DI once explained to me that, despite his lack of management experience, he had prospered as a DI manager because being the boss was “just like running a graduate seminar.” CIA analysts, he explained, are eager for approval and are smart but not wise, and need hand-holding.

Mutual bad feelings proliferate at Langley. DI analysts see case officers as cowboys, if not Neanderthals, while NCS/DO officers often resent what they see as faster promotion for analysts who never leave headquarters (in similar fashion, DI officers resent the perks enjoyed by case officers abroad, such as free housing: a GS-13 posted overseas, de facto, makes much more than a GS-13 in Northern Virginia). A perennial sore point is that DI analysts get face time with senior DC functionaries, and thus do careers get made, while a DO “field rat” out saving the world is invisible inside the Beltway. Nevertheless, adventure-seeking DI analysts on occasion transition to being DO case officers, while the opposite seldom happens, unless you’re a hopeless washout in operations.

There is no doubt that CIA history is largely written by the analysts, whose stories may be boring but they know how to get things on paper effectively. (Old spooks who can write well, like DO legend Bob Baer, are the exception that proves the rule.) The frequent NCS/DO denunciation of DI “dorks” is based in resentment, not least because top Agency and IC jobs go more often to analysts than to “real” spooks. The career of John Brennan, the current Agency director, is instructive. A DI analyst by background, he played the Langley, then Beltway, game effectively, securing plum staff jobs along the way up, including Chief of Station Riyadh (a rare job for an analyst), then riding to the very top by ingratiating himself with President Bush, then with President Obama.

Brennan recently proposed the most dramatic CIA reorganization ever, suggesting the melding of the DI and NCS/DO, to overcome the Agency’s persistent internal problems. The model would be CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which since the 1980’s has brought analysts and case officers together against a particularly knotty problem, overcoming bureaucratic obstacles to improve effectiveness. This sounds nice — insert requisite cliches about “building synergies” and “leveraging skill-sets” — but how this may apply Agency-wide is an open question, not least because the DI-DO divide, which is anything but new, reflects the essential difference in personality between analysts and spooks, as much as it does anything in organizational charts. Simply put, DI analysts and DO case officers are like dogs and cats, breeds apart in their DNA, and forcing them to lie down may cause as much friction as knocking down the wall between canine and feline kennels.

That said, the need for CIA reform is pressing. The well-intentioned but not always very effective performance that the Agency put in during the Cold War may not be adequate to the security challenges America faces in this century. Instead of forever melding the DI and NCS/DO into one perhaps very unhappy family, why not remove the analysts altogether and let the Agency focus on actual espionage, its core mission?

The placement of the finished intelligence mission inside CIA was an accident of history, stemming from the OSS’s tweedy Research and Analysis (R&A) shop during World War II. During that war, R&A was staffed by actual Ivy League professors called to serve the war effort; since then, the DI has attempted the same, with wannabe Ivy League professors, with decidedly mixed results.

Most countries to not try to make rough spooks and bookish analysts live in the same agency. Our closest intelligence partners, in the Anglosphere, do it differently, and this merits attention. In Britain, the DI equivalent is the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which produces finished intelligence with analysts on assignment from all the intelligence agencies. In Australia, that mission is undertaken by the free-standing Office of National Assessments (ONA), which is independent of other secret agencies and reports directly to the prime minister. Having a cadre of genuinely elite analysts — quality here being much more important than quantity — made up of bona fide experts, offers a far better model than what CIA, as is, can deliver. Rather than remake CIA, it would be a much better idea to reinvent the DI, elsewhere, with more talented, and smaller, staff.

Of course, nobody in Washington, DC, ever won out with a proposal calling for less people and money for their organization, so I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon. But it should, since our national security is at stake. CIA is made up of neither evil-doers nor supermen, rather Americans just like you, dear reader, who do their best for the country, in a top secret fashion, while worrying about all the normal things like their kids, their aging parents, and their waistlines. We expect a lot from them, and they should give a lot in return. Happily, most of them do.


16 comments on “Reforming CIA: An Insider’s View”
  1. Ivan Vega Lassalle says:

    Great article !!!

  2. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Interesting background on a very touchy subject !

  3. ektrit kris says:

    It seems to me that any agency of United States government, whether for public or secret service, has a huge problem of management of scale.

    Huge scale seems to be the issue. Not unusual for extra large countries and ultra sophisticated and ultra complex structured like US government, ultra large corporation or ultra large financial system.

    Problem of scale.

    1. 20committee says:

      I think the issue of (excessive) scale is absolutely one of the root problems here, no question

  4. J. Daniel says:

    I’ve heard of one investment bank that does that pod structure right. The folks all focus on making the firm a profit: secured lines of credit, equities, derivatives, wealth management, all handing off a client as they need to and as they grow. Not many others do. Buy in is tough. Other small problems for clients too. Como se dice, front running, in intelligence language?

    And the banks do focus on merit. There’s nepotism but you don’t get to handle the money at a prop desk unless you bring and make the money. IC is a bit of a family affair isn’t it? Is that an issue too?

  5. JohnofPrinceGeorgesCounty says:

    I read it. I dont get it. Your recommendation seems to be fewer analysts but wiser. And don’t put them near the intelligence collectors because people who work outdoors don’t like people who work indoors. Not one word about how the fewer, wiser analysts are recruited, developed, retained. No word about how to effectively develop the cadre of gatekeepers who will always exist to see that the fewer, wiser analysts are tasked and then filter the path to the policy guys who have the money and give the orders.

    Your prescription “Get better, dammit” is not much of a prescription.

    1. 20committee says:

      It was an opinion article, not a book, which would be required to meet your apparent information need.

  6. Guns says:

    Interesting and informative article!

  7. mindweapon says:

    I found out recently that the whole point of H1B visas, or a large point of them, is to bring people like Pakistanis and Iranians and such here to the USA, get them all comfy in some professional job, then tell them, “Nice American life you got there; be a shame to lose it. Are you an American patriot? Will you work for us (whoever us, is) now?”

    I found this out directly from one of the victims, whom I just happened across by chance (or not by chance) in a coffee shop.

    1. 20committee says:

      Chance, you say? 😉

      1. mindweapon says:

        I thought it was by chance, then I got paranoid. But I still think it’s by chance.

  8. John Weisman says:

    Great piece. Agree re “Legacy.” Attached in link to the review I did for WashTimes (later reprinted in Intelligencer) when book came out.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for sharing!

  9. miguel cervantes says:

    have you read Gregg Herken’s tome on Stewart Alsop, which covers much of the first quarter century of covert operations,

    1. 20committee says:

      Skimmed not really read.

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