President Obama’s recent visit to the CIA reminds us of the critical role the Central Intelligence Agency plays in national security. While the president was at the CIA headquarters to learn about ISIS, he had little time to notice the bureaucratic swirl going on around him.
A significant but largely unnoticed transformation has been percolating for the past year — CIA Director John Brennan’s restructuring of the agency. The Brennan plan is the most far-reaching organizational shake up since the CIA’s creation in 1947. If fully implemented, this restructuring will drastically change the way espiocrats perform their duties.
The Brennan plan shifts the traditional power center of the CIA — away from separate operational, analytical and technical components focusing largely on strategic intelligence — to 10 more tactically oriented mission centers focusing on regional and transnational issues. The affect of this reorganization on intelligence is not clear. Perhaps it means a faster, more nimble approach, as Brennan contends. But long-range thinking, source protection and analytical objectivity might be the first casualties.
Designed to increase collaboration and fill the intelligence gaps, the mission centers fuse together operations officers, analysts, technical intelligence officers and others. The directorate of operations and the directorate of analysis — long the bedrock of CIA organization — have shifted to function as talent pools from which the 10 centers can draw personnel as needed. For example, the director of the operations directorate (DDO) — the CIA’s real spymaster responsible for the global conduct of espionage — has become the senior bureaucrat in charge of training, equipping and preparing spies for their work in the mission centers. This realization is probably what led to the previous DDO’s resignation when Brennan announced the reorganization last year.
The reorganization creates a new directorate of digital innovation, focused on cyber-espionage and computer technology. This change makes sense from a mission perspective — cyber threats from state and non-state actors are very real — as well as from a bureaucratic perch. With the creation of the U.S. military’s Cyber Command and other agencies moving into the digital domain, the CIA needed to carve out and enhance its cyber turf.
Some objections to the Brennan reorganization can be sourced to espiocratic maneuvering. For example, the DDO used to be the power broker that selected the senior U.S. intelligence officers, or chiefs of station (COS), in CIA offices, or stations, overseas. These coveted COS positions were nearly always awarded to CIA officers from the directorate of operations (DO) (Brennan is himself a notable exception; much of his career was spent as an analyst but he successfully transitioned to a COS position). With the reorganization, analysts will serve as center directors. They can be expected to use their sway to lobby for analysts to attain COS positions, at the expense of the DO.
Bureaucratic bickering aside, there are real pitfalls to the reorganization, however, stemming from too much short-term focus, too little source protection and the introduction of bias. Centers like the Counterterrorism Center are known for their short-term, tactical focus over long-term analysis. This makes sense when the mission is to “find, fix, and finish a terrorist.” However, reorganizing the CIA to run more like a collection of centers focused on short-term gain runs the risk of reorienting the entire agency to a “today’s mail” focus. This could make it more difficult to assess larger and unexpected issues before they occur, an essential function of the CIA.
In addition, reducing the distance between analysts and operators could make it more difficult to protect sources and methods. CIA analysts do not generally know the true identity of the clandestine sources whose intelligence they read and assess. That’s because the true identities of foreign spies must be tightly held to prevent their disclosure or compromise. By making it easier for analysts to work in close contact with collectors, however, analysts are more likely to learn the identity of our spies — and the more people who know a secret, the much harder it is to protect that secret.
By having collectors and analysts working side by side, the Brennan plan might inadvertently encourage the growth of analytical bias. An analyst closely working a human intelligence case from inception through the recruitment of a spy might understandably develop a particular bias toward that particular spy and the information that spy subsequently provides. Analytical objectivity can easily be lost.
Brennan’s reorganization is still working its way through the CIA. His opponents might try to “wait him out;” after all, it is an election year. But regardless, he has significantly redirected the CIA’s approach to intelligence. Let’s hope the benefits outweigh the costs.
John D. Woodward Jr., a retired CIA officer, is a professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. Born and raised in Charleroi, he serves as a trustee at Waynesburg University.