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.



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