Are Management Consultants Ruining CIA?

When John Brennan announced his reorganization plans for the CIA last week, his unclassified press release revealed a big secret: CIA is going corporate.

From the get go, Brennan’s announcement oozed the corporate speak of management consultants. The press release was to outline the Agency’s “Blueprint for the Future,” creating a “Talent Development Center of Excellence” and developing “systemic methods” for “integrating activities” and “developing leaders” and “accelerating” the integration of those activities and leaders.

It seems management consultants have invaded the very gray area of intelligence collection and analysis, and I fear it does not bode well for the future of CIA.


First, a short history lesson.

This is not the first time management consultants have taken over the Intelligence Community (IC). The IC had a feeding frenzy in the early post-9/11 years, facing unprecedented expansion in a very short period of time. As the Directorate of Operations, where I worked, became the National Clandestine Service, President Bush ordered a 50 percent increase in the number of CIA officers in certain intelligence jobs.

Besides absorbing huge numbers of new employees, the Agency also faced an expanded mission. With two wars to fight and other threats lurking elsewhere around the globe, the Agency came to focus on paramilitary operations while heeding the call to stop being stuck in a Cold War mindset.

As the IC expanded, managers and policymakers alike began to see it could quickly become unwieldy. Where were the checks and balances? How could we be sure we were all communicating so we would not once again miss connecting the dots?

Along came management consultants to insert themselves into this chaos, promising to streamline operations, implement value added changes, and highlight key fundamentals for achieving mission success. Those of us on the inside noticed gradual changes. Emails started having words like “human capital” in them. When we had too few slots for all the new people, it was considered an “overstrength” issue. Managers, fresh out of Leadership Training, started checking in to make sure we felt motivated, asking about our kids at the most random times, and giving us fist bumps in an effort to really connect with us.

But the biggest corporate culture that was placed on us was the implementation of metrics. For years the IC has struggled with how to measure success. Number of plots foiled? Amount of money spent? Amount of information collected? Number of reports written? Just as Bush thought hiring more people was the solution after 9/11, quantity became the driver behind how we would define and achieve mission success. More information was the goal. The value of the information was secondary.

The metrics put in place created short-term incentives that work against long-term goals. Employees, out of self-interest, will meet the metrics imposed on them. They want to get promoted, and they can only do that by demonstrating their performance against these metrics that measure quantity. But this often precludes achieving the goals of the community as a whole, since these require longer investments with fewer payoffs along the way. It was a risk the IC took, bringing consultants who had never been operators and lacked knowledge about the subtleties of intelligence work, which is, at its core, a very human and creative process.

Imagine an intelligence officer up for review. She can go after an easy target who will likely provide decent, but not excellent, information and check that metrics box. Or, she can go after a hard target, who might not produce anything for years but may one day land in a position that provides access to our top collection priorities. Metrics have assured that risk will not be taken, limiting our chances of getting the hardest but most important intelligence.

The result has been a lot of paper pushing. Intelligence officers are increasingly stuck at their desks filing paperwork. We engage in process to make it look like a lot is happening, since that is what the metrics measure.

One of the main metrics over the past decade has been the number of people in the war zones. Filling slots in Iraq and Afghanistan became a priority, even if the officer never left her desk. It was important to show we had a lot of people there.

Then we built huge new offices to house all these employees. Now, we need to send people to fill the offices we built. How else can we justify the money we spent to build them? That’s metrics.

The longer-term consequences are becoming apparent as the nature of the threat changes. While we were measuring success based on how many people we sent to Iraq and operators checked the war tour box, we churned out young officers who can wear a flak jacket in Baghdad but can’t run a Surveillance Detection Route anywhere else. But who ever thought Cold War countries would be relevant intelligence targets again?

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It, Is to Create More Systematic Methods to Better Develop Leaders and to Integrate Activities Across the Agency, Creating Multi-Disciplined Intelligence Officers

Now, in an attempt to address the deficiencies we ourselves created, Brennan is doubling down on the corporate approach.

The main thrust of the reorganization is to create centers where intelligence officers with all kinds of backgrounds—analysts, operators, techies—can come together to achieve mission success. It sounds great. And it can work, if applied well and with flexibility. But the corporate speak does not instill confidence. It sounds like more boxes to check.

In his press release, Brennan discusses integrating different intelligence disciplines, “starting with a plan to make multi-disciplinary exposure and experience the ‘new normal’ at CIA.”

Based on how I have seen corporate speak implemented in the past, this sounds like, in order to get promoted, an officer will now have to take courses outside of his or her normal discipline and have to serve a tour in another discipline.

It is important to understand, analysts and operators have very different jobs that require very different skill sets. As such, they have very different personalities. Analysts love footnotes and using the word “paradigm.” Operators most often cannot be bothered to worry about subject-verb correlation. Analysts can tell you the minutest details about the tensile strength of a particular component of a bomb built in a certain country in 1986, and will talk enthusiastically about it for hours. An operator can find you a copy of the November issue of Playboy in a Middle Eastern country on a Friday during prayers.

Does that analyst now have to take operational training courses to get promoted? And does that operator have to learn how to write a finished intelligence report to move up? The risk is creating generalists and further diluting our collection capabilities, which are already suffering from the last round of box checking forced upon them.

Yes, there are advantages to having analysts and operators work together. But creating “multi-disciplined officers” risks developing officers who can do everything mediocre but nothing well.

The biggest concern for operators, I believe, is how this will be applied in a station. Can an analyst have a management position in the field? Presumably, yes, given the corporate speak about “integration,” “well-rounded intelligence officers,” and “building a culture in which we are all intelligence officers first, regardless of our Directorate, position, or area of expertise.”

There are many reasons analysts should not have decision making authority over operations. First and foremost because they have never done operations (nor should they; again, analysis and operations require very different personalities to be successful. A few intro courses on how to run operations does not a case officer make). Operations are inherently creative and take place in a gray area. Developing and running operations requires bouncing ideas off people. The newly re-renamed DO (the NCS is now once again known as the Directorate of Operations) also has a great tradition of senior officers mentoring junior officers. This usually happens in a very informal manner, shooting the shit over a glass of whiskey and hashing out the challenges of an operation and suggesting even the most ludicrous solutions because who the hell knows what other idea it might lead to. How does this happen if management in a station is made up of analysts who have never run an operation?

On the other side of the coin, I would not want a case officer leading the drive to write a long-form finished intelligence product on strategic analysis of a topic. A case officer stopped reading that last sentence about halfway through.

The key is: operations must be flexible. If more “streamlining” is going to create other boxes to check—namely, operators forced into other training and answering to analysts in management positions—this reorganization will be a failure. It is folly to try to make analysts and operators “multi-disciplined.” It is already hard enough, with so many restraints, for case officers to collect intelligence. And in the end, if they don’t collect intelligence, no one else has a job because there is nothing to analyze.

What the Levinson Case Tells Us About CIA

In light of the increased award just announced for information on the whereabouts about Robert Levinson, the FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007, I figured I would re-up something I wrote back in December 2013, when reports came out about him possibly contracting with CIA. Separately, I’m working on a new article about the CIA reorganization announced last week, which will look at some of the same themes I cover below. Stay tuned…

From December 2013:

Recently, several news organizations reported that a group of CIA analysts had run what has been called a “rogue operation” involving former FBI officer Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in March 2007. Running operations is not what analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence are meant to do. Intelligence gathering is the job of officers of the National Clandestine Service, or NCS. That is the part of the CIA formerly known as the Directorate of Operations, which runs assets and conducts what most people think of as spying operations. In theory, analysts tell the operators what the gaps in intelligence are, and the operators respond by finding ways to collect information to fill those gaps.

The report of a rogue operation funded by the DI, then, begs the question: With the entire NCS at their disposal, why did this group of analysts feel the need to look elsewhere for information?

The unfortunate answer is: The NCS has become so bogged down in bureaucracy that it can no longer meet its customers’ needs.

Over the past twelve years, the NCS has changed, and not only in name. While once NCS case officers spent the majority of their time out of the office developing, recruiting, and meeting with assets, they are increasingly stuck at desks writing cables convincing Headquarters why they should be allowed to meet someone in the first place. From running operations to how officers are promoted, the NCS has a column of boxes that must be checked before anything can happen, and checking each box requires more and more people.

Think about all the negative things you have read in the past few years about the intelligence community: renditions and black sites, bad intelligence on Iraq, spying on U.S. citizens. The list goes on. For every one of these disclosures, leaders in the community have implemented wide-ranging regulations to counter them internally.

Reforms may have been needed, but they have been implemented in a way that leaves NCS officers operating with one hand tied behind their back. Case officers work in strange locales, evade surveillance in hostile areas, and meet with people whose lives are on the line. They operate in gray areas. But many of the regulations instituted over the past decade are black and white. That has made running an operation – already a complex endeavor – that much more difficult. When sending an email to a potential source becomes a Herculean task that requires the approval of fifteen or more people in five different time zones and who each have different flex schedules, the case officer’s job becomes all the more challenging. I have heard it described as “op by committee,” and it is hardly an efficient system in an industry that requires creative thinking and an enormous amount of flexibility. And while exceptions do happen, they require a lot of energy and time to get the right people to agree.

As a result, NCS case officers have trouble responding in a timely manner to analysts’ requirements. It isn’t surprising that analysts might have turned to outside operatives to help them get the intelligence they need. Levinson was not the only one. One need not look further than Tyson’s Corner to see the proliferation of private intelligence companies that offer the government new avenues for collecting information.

The intelligence community, to its own detriment, tends to respond to crises in the extreme. After 9/11, critics said the community was too insular and prone to groupthink. New regulations required increased sharing of information. Now, the community is struggling to explain why Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden had such easy access to so much information.

With the reports about Levinson, analysts, who for a while were encouraged to seek out dissenting views from outside experts, are encumbered once again with a regulation that requires them to seek approval for nearly all outside contact. The result is likely to be more groupthink, which was part of the problem in the first place.

The Levinson case is yet another sign that bureaucracy is crippling the NCS’s ability to meet analysts’ needs. We need to rethink the regulatory rulebook so NCS officers can get back to the business of collecting intelligence.