The two suggestions I hear most from “experts” on intelligence are that the CIA needs to beef up its paramilitary operations and expand its clandestine service. Let me debunk these right now.
First of all, not everything can be solved by the US dropping a Hellfire missile on it. If that were the case, the Middle East would be a bastion of security. Last I checked, it still has a few minor hiccups to overcome.
Now it’s true, in some cases, adding the skills and capabilities of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS) with those of, for example, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) can be an effective tool of foreign policy. Just ask Usama bin Laden.
But combining these groups into one, as Robert Caruso recently suggested in an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, overlooks a basic fact: the CIA does much more than counterterrorism in war zones. And policymakers need it to do much more than counterterrorism in war zones.
Remember a few weeks ago when Russia walked into Ukraine? That was a foreign policy challenge that could not be addressed with US air strikes. Rather, it required human intelligence, or HUMINT.
You want boots on the ground? I want a case officer in comfortable walking shoes running a day-long Surveillance Detection Route to meet with a clandestine source who can tell us who, what, where, when, and why.
But such tradecraft is being lost, as most of our case officers have spent the last thirteen years rotating in and out of war zones. Some of our younger case officers have gone straight from training at the Farm to post after post in war zones, where they are only allowed out with armed escorts in armored vehicles. Believe it or not, this is not very covert.
So while many case officers can shoot a variety of weapons and crash and bang up cars, they cannot operate in truly denied environments, where the opposing intelligence service is as good (or better) than ours.
This became apparent this past summer, when an employee of the BND, Germany’s intelligence service, was arrested for selling secrets to the CIA. A recent article by Ken Dilanian for the Associated Press claims that, as a result, the CIA has curbed its spying in Europe. According to the article, the CIA put its operations on hold “to give CIA officers time to examine whether they were being careful enough.” The implication is that someone didn’t handle this asset very well and the asset got caught. In short, bad tradecraft.
The CIA needs to re-up its HUMINT game and recapture its old school spy mojo.
As for increasing the size of the CIA: Caruso, in the Globe piece, calls for a CIA “more than twice its current size.” He thinks this will allow the Agency to “warn about and confront threats with swift and direct action.”
Some things are good when they are doubled. Double Stuffed Oreos come to mind. But doubling the CIA would be more like KFC’s Double Down chicken sandwich: a lot of crap that you really don’t need and that will only slow you down. Not quite the “swift” response Caruso and others are looking for, I’m guessing.
Back in 2004, we “reformed” the intelligence community, expanding it to add the incredibly useful DNI (where is my sarcastic font??), designed to coordinate cooperation and reduce redundancies across all intelligence agencies. Since then, managers have been so busy writing cables to other managers explaining how they are coordinating and cooperating with each other that no one actually does anything except pass electronic paper.
(For the record, I’m hardly the only DNI naysayer. A manager there once told me the organization was an example of “waste, fraud, and abuse.”)
Also in 2004, the CIA itself began hiring more people (then-President Bush called for a 50 percent increase at the Agency). These extra hires were great for filling seats in war zones, giving Congress comfort that something was being done because we had so many people there (even if they couldn’t leave base and mostly watched Netflix).
But all of these people have also written themselves into the operational process. They say they are necessary, but in many cases they are just giving themselves something to do while they sit at a desk. Likely, so many people have been written into the process that “ops by committee” has become a catchphrase in the Agency’s hallways.
This is not efficient. And this is not effective.
Intelligence is the front line of any war. But we need to realize that some of these wars are fought in the shadows, not on a battlefield, and we need to cut the bureaucracy and the military leanings and get the NCS back to job of spying. In short, more cloak, less dagger, and way less bureaucracy.