A recent article in the Washington Post (“Secret report raises alarms on intelligence blind spots because of AQ focus”) highlights one of the themes I tackle in my upcoming book, Victor in the Rubble (see The Book section for more). Namely, that the CIA’s operational side, the National Clandestine Service, has moved away from traditional collection toward a more paramilitary role. To an extent, this was an inevitable transformation in a post-9/11 world. But it was also shortsighted and correcting it is long overdue.
When the Bush administration opted, in 2004, to reform the intelligence community, the Agency began a hiring spree aimed at increasing its personnel by 50 percent. These new employees were rushed through ever-shorter training courses and quickly deployed to fill the growing number of empty slots in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At first, volunteering for these positions was a matter of duty and pride, a way to contribute to the war effort and fulfill a righteous mission. NCS officers began returning to the war zones for two, three, four or more tours. Training became more focused on how to handle a weapon and interrogate a detainee than on how to evade detection or recruit an asset.
The analogy I often heard was that being in Islamabad post-9/11 was like being in Berlin during the Cold War. Nobody wanted to be that guy, the one who hadn’t gone to a war zone. Pity the officer who couldn’t recount his or her first time sleeping in a freight container listening to mortars rain down on a base, even if that officer was fluent in Mandarin and had studied and/or worked in China for years before joining the Agency. A war zone tour was a badge of honor.
And I agree that it should be. Most of the people I know who went to those damaged places (many of whom came back damaged themselves) were honorable and hard-working officers who went with the right intentions.
But as the wars dragged on and mission creep set in, service in a war zone started to become more of an obligation, a box to check in order to be promoted, and heck, if it helped pay off the mortgage on a new house in Northern Virginia, then why not?
And unlike tours in Berlin during the Cold War, tours in the war zones have no basis in traditional tradecraft. As the Post article points out, officers tend to support military missions, not gather intelligence. The security situation makes it nearly impossible to leave base. Assets are met in armored cars with military escorts.
Many of the NCS’s officers only know this operational environment. They have never operated in a busy city, where they had to evade local security services and carry out operations in the open, completely unnoticed.
This puts us on shaky footing as the war efforts wind down and we come to realize the other threats that have been steadily rising around us over the past decade. These new threats, from China, Iran, and others, will not be countered in war zones, but in theaters much more similar to Cold War Berlin. Strikes between enemies will be played out in the shadows and adversaries will aim to outmaneuver, rather than shoot, one another.
Let me know what you think. Is our intelligence community prepared for future challenges? If not, what can we do about it? Leave me a comment!