Shadow Government

Measuring Change at the CIA

It would be a mistake to reverse or suspend any of the reforms now underway at Langley without the benefit of a rigorous and objective assessment of how the new priorities, structures, and work processes are actually impacting the agency’s core missions.

Director of Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan takes questions from reporters during a press conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, December 11, 2014.   The head of the Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged Thursday some agency interrogators used "abhorrent" unauthorized techniques in questioning terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks. CIA director John Brennan said there was no way to determine whether the methods used produced useful intelligence, but he strongly denied the CIA misled the public. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Director of Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan takes questions from reporters during a press conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, December 11, 2014. The head of the Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged Thursday some agency interrogators used "abhorrent" unauthorized techniques in questioning terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks. CIA director John Brennan said there was no way to determine whether the methods used produced useful intelligence, but he strongly denied the CIA misled the public. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

This time next year, a new president will be reviewing recommendations from a transition team, and likely also the views of a new director or director-designate, on the state of affairs at the Central Intelligence Agency — including the impact of a major reorganization initiated by the agency’s current director, John Brennan. The new national security team will not lack for advice on this topic from serving officers, CIA alumni, congressional overseers, and the burgeoning intelligence commentariat. This advice will be well-intentioned in the main, but not universally well-informed. There is considerable skepticism in these communities that the changes underway will ultimately produce a more effective CIA. Such skepticism is rooted in a strong (and well-exercised) aversion to change at Langley, nostalgia for tradition-rich institutions that were unceremoniously dismembered, and sincere concern that some of the changes may actually hinder, rather than enhance, the agency’s ability to deliver “timely, accurate, and insightful” intelligence to policymakers.

The CIA is an essential institution positioned at the heart of an intelligence community (IC) charged with anticipating, understanding, and often neutralizing threats to our national security. It would be a mistake to reverse or suspend any of the reforms now underway at Langley without the benefit of a rigorous and objective assessment of how the new priorities, structures, and work processes are actually impacting the Agency’s core missions: collecting intelligence from human sources (HUMINT), evaluating information from all sources, and shaping conditions abroad through covert actions. The objective evaluation of the performance of any intelligence organization is fraught, but such an exercise should be completed before the CIA workforce is subjected to the uncertainty and disruption of another makeover.

This essay poses four questions to help guide decisions on whether to abandon and reverse, selectively modify, or press ahead with the reforms now underway at CIA:

  • Has full integration of analysts and operations officers improved the quality of human source reporting and utility of the CIA’s assessments?
  • Will the restructured CIA be more effective in implementing assigned covert action missions?
  • Is the new Directorate of Digital Innovation accelerating the CIA’s adoption of digital technologies, including those required to exploit new open sources of information?
  • Will the CIA’s “modernization” help create a more closely integrated and collaborative intelligence community?

The Blueprint

The CIA’s leaders have, quite understandably, framed their initiative as an essential “modernization” project, rather than one seeking to “reform” or “restructure.” Few would argue against the need for an up-to-date intelligence service in dangerous times characterized by rapid technological change. Restructuring, on the other hand, is the fate of failed or failing organizations. What is happening today at the CIA includes elements of both. Brennan hopes to prepare the CIA for future success in a dynamic and fully digitized global environment by redrawing the organization chart with new boxes, job titles, and reporting relationships.

Brennan unveiled his “Blueprint for the Future” last March, almost two years after returning to Langley as director. The blueprint was clearly — and quite appropriately — informed by Brennan’s decades of service as both an intelligence officer and policy official who depended critically on intelligence support. An internal panel of handpicked officers vetted his ideas. Notwithstanding the costly services of a corporate consultancy, the efforts undertaken to engage the broader CIA workforce failed to generate widespread buy-in for the changes, judging by a spate of retirements by senior officers, particularly from the operational ranks. These changes have rightly or wrongly been regarded as more top-down than organic. The current leadership team will likely have less than a year to implement its Blueprint before the transition between administrations. The CIA’s new structures and work practices will be established, but not irreversibly so, when new leaders take the helm at Langley.

At its core, the Blueprint seeks to remove the remaining bureaucratic barriers separating the CIA’s principal professions: operations officers who handle agents and conduct covert activities overseas, and intelligence analysts who evaluate information and support a Washington-based policymaking process. Replicating the model of the CIA’s well regarded Counterterrorism Center, the staffs of disbanded operational divisions and intelligence production offices were combined to create new “mission centers” with the goals of improving HUMINT collection, the impact of covert programs, as well as the quality of analytic assessments. Recognizing the transformative impact of digital technology on the intelligence business, Brennan also established the new Directorate of Digital Innovation (DDI) — a fifth directorate, and the first new unit of this scale to be created since the early 1960s. The IC’s Open Source Center (OSC) was renamed the Open Source Enterprise (OSE), and moved into the CIA’s DDI.

Has the full integration of analysts and operations officers improved the quality of human source reporting and the utility of the CIA’s assessments?

To be fair, the practice of integrating operations officers and analysts within intelligence centers is neither new nor unfamiliar at the CIA. For decades, functional centers have existed at Langley, focused on transnational threats like counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and counterproliferation. The agency also made less ambitious efforts over the years to co-locate geographically defined operational divisions with their counterpart analytic offices. The mere fact of physical proximity, however, rarely stimulated better information sharing and collaboration, because of the overriding security concerns of agent handlers and persistent fears that the objectivity of assessments would be compromised by analysts’ sympathy for their neighbors who were engaged in operations. The creation of mission centers will compel, at least physically and organizationally, the integration of operations and analytic specialists concerned with the same regions.

These mergers create both opportunities and hazards. Expert analysts can help operations managers to focus risky recruitment operations on potential spies with confirmed access to useful information, to ask those agents the most pressing questions, and to test the veracity of the reporting they provide.

The benefits available to analysts from integrating with operations officers are more limited, but not insignificant. Within a mission center, an analyst should be able to learn the identity, basis for access, and track record of a human source in order to gauge the reliability of his or her reporting. In a crisis, an analyst may also benefit from real-time access to “ground truth” by communicating directly with the CIA’s stations and bases overseas. Reliable metrics for HUMINT reporting and analytic insight are difficult to craft, but senior mission center managers should by now be able to present multiple examples where the integration of operations officers and expert analysts improved outcomes in both disciplines.

Several commentators have raised concerns about the objectivity of assessments prepared by a mission center that is responsible for gathering information or even covertly shaping the events being assessed. This is an appropriate but not a crippling worry. The CIA’s analytic cadre is steeped in an ethos of objectivity and generally welcomes opportunities (sometimes overenthusiastically) to deliver unwelcome news and “speak truth to power.” The main challenge for the CIA’s managers, at least in the initial phases of integration, will be encouraging sharing and collaboration rather than guarding against its excesses.

The move to mission centers exposed at least two other hazards: possible inattention paid to essential functions previously performed by the geographic area divisions, and a potentially ambiguous operational and analytic chain of command.

Shifting traditional operational missions and personnel to new mission centers marked an unceremonious end for the CIA’s proud, tradition-rich area divisions (such as the Near East, Latin America, and East Asia divisions), whose roots trace back to the agency’s founding in 1947, and sometimes earlier. The CIA’s area divisions — led in earlier times by formidable “barons” — fiercely guarded both their secrets and their turf, while instinctively warding off disruptive change. These conservative institutions nonetheless performed vital functions for the nation’s espionage service: nurturing the skills and careers of operations professionals, staffing and supporting foreign field stations, and tending the hundreds of relationships with foreign security services that collectively allow the CIA to execute its global mission. Special attention will be required to ensure that a fully integrated, mission-centric CIA preserves the unique contributions, if not the mixed historical legacies, of the dismantled area divisions.

The mission centers are led by a new tier of managers — assistant directors, who report to the CIA director. In some instances, career analysts were selected to lead mission centers. In other cases, experienced operations officers hold the assistant director posts. Apart from the monumental span of control challenge this arrangement poses for a CIA director, there is a more serious concern about the clarity of the new chain of command — and the corresponding chain of accountability in the event of mistakes.

Despite the generally high quality of officers selected to lead the mission centers, none of the incumbents drawn from the analytic cadre is qualified to make complex judgments regarding operational tradecraft. For example: decisions on which covert communications system to issue an agent in a hostile foreign capital, or whether (and how) to meet personally with an untested “walk-in” source. Similarly, a veteran operations officer would be ill-equipped to reconcile competing analytic judgments in the draft text of an article for the president’s daily brief. Handling agents and analyzing intelligence are two highly specialized, and decidedly different, professions. The obvious, and expedient, solution has been to pair mission center directors with deputies from a different career service.

A further complication arises because the post of deputy director for operations (DDO) — a senior official who formerly commanded the CIA’s clandestine service and the area divisions — was preserved during the reorganization. A CIA press release indicated that the DDO retains “overall responsibility and accountability for the delivery of excellence” by operations professionals. So, if one can penetrate the consultant-speak, a question remains: Which senior official is actually responsible for the safety and effectiveness of operations officers deployed to stations and bases worldwide?

A similar ambiguity exists on the analytic side, with a director of intelligence retaining responsibility for the accuracy of analytic assessments but apparently functioning outside the chain of command that runs between between an assistant director (and mission center head) and the CIA director. Under normal circumstances, mature professionals can be expected to build working relationships with peers and avoid direct conflicts, but in the case of a significant misjudgment — on either the operational or analytic side — this lack of clarity may prevent the assignment of accountability and call into question the organizational structure that allowed it to take place.

Will the restructured CIA be more effective in implementing assigned covert action missions?

Despite the disproportionate level of controversy often surrounding covert action programs, modern presidents continue to assign the CIA significant roles in implementing our foreign and national security policies. In an environment of weakening nation-states and escalating transnational threats from religious extremists, weapons proliferators, and malign cyber actors, the United States will need the ability to defend its interests through agile, impactful, and non-attributable actions abroad. The National Security Council-led interagency process for developing policy recommendations for the president encourages “all-of-government” responses to difficult problems. This often results in the CIA being assigned a covert action role within a broader national policy with coordinated diplomatic, military, and financial components. This trend is likely to continue. The CIA must therefore retain, or develop, the tools needed to shape conditions anywhere on the globe in response to a presidential directive.

Each covert action program is unique in its policy objectives, delegated authorities, and limitations — all of which are clearly spelled out in a written “finding” that is approved by the president and notified to Congress. The scope of a covert action can range from lethal paramilitary operations to more subtle efforts to influence public opinion through media contacts. The CIA traditionally assigned lead responsibility for conducting covert actions to a single area division or operational center that acted through selected overseas stations and drew upon infrastructure, relationships, and expertise maintained by the Special Activities Center (SAC).

The 2005 report produced by the “Silberman-Robb” Commission — a body charged with investigating the flawed prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapon of mass destruction programs — criticized the CIA’s institutional approach to covert action. The commissioners recommended separating the covert action mission from the agency’s espionage arm, and housing it in a new directorate that would report to the director. The agency successfully resisted that step, but the fact remains that the CIA’s track record of influencing conditions abroad through covert means is decidedly mixed.

Under the new model, the CIA’s covert action infrastructure (including paramilitary officers, aircraft, and media assets) remains in the SAC, whose leader reports to the DDO. Presumably, the principal responsibility for implementing various covert programs shifted along with the experts, field resources, and foreign relationships, to the relevant mission center. It will be important to gauge whether this further diffusion of responsibility for covert programs will exacerbate the CIA’s chronic underemphasis on and underinvestment in its unique policy support mission.

Is the new Directorate of Digital Innovation accelerating the CIA’s adoption of digital technologies, including those required to exploit new open sources of information?

The rapid advancement and proliferation of digital technologies is changing every aspect of intelligence. The public, and our adversaries, learned of the National Security Agency’s extraordinary ability to collect and process digitized communications through illegal disclosures by a former contractor. Well-publicized intrusions by China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea into public and private networks in the United States reminded us how widely dispersed this technology has become and how challenging it will be in the future to protect our own data.

Even the most traditional and conservative intelligence discipline — espionage by human sources — has been profoundly impacted by digital technology. Aspiring agent handlers are still drilled in the timeless “agent recruitment cycle”: 1. Spot a target with potential access to secrets; 2. assess the target’s willingness to commit espionage; 3. develop a trusting relationship that will encourage future cooperation; 4. recruit the target to spy; and 5. handle the agent as he or she gathers information while avoiding detection. It does not require great imagination to appreciate how each stage of this cycle and the overall business of recruiting spies to steal secrets is being transformed by the internet, smartphones, and the trail of digital dust that chronicles our modern existence. Similarly, dramatic changes in how billions of global citizens access new information, form opinions, and seek to influence others presents a range of options for governments trying to shape public attitudes.

Brennan recognized the profound impact digital technology was having on the CIA’s mission and directed the establishment of the DDI to accelerate the “integration of our digital and cyber capabilities across all our mission areas.” He specifically charged the new directorate with attracting and nurturing skilled technologists, and setting agency-wide standards for digital technology. The key question for overseers and the CIA’s next leaders is whether concentrating digital expertise and responsibility in a single office promotes or discourages the application of these new technologies across the CIA’s diverse missions. If the DDI serves as an incubator and accelerator for new digital applications, this approach will be vindicated. If, however, the agency’s savvy and impatient workforce comes to regard DDI review and approval of new technology applications as cumbersome and unduly time-consuming, a rethinking will be in order. The CIA’s staffers will have time to reflect on the DDI’s impact each day at lunch as they walk outside the headquarters building to their parked cars to check smartphones for emails, text messages, and missed calls.

It was notable that the process of standing up a new directorate focused exclusively on digital technology was not accompanied by the disestablishment of CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DST). The DST is a small but storied agency component most closely associated in the public’s mind with spectacular Cold War technical collection programs like the Corona satellite, U-2, and Glomar Explorer. The future scope of the DST’s mission would appear to be significantly constrained by the transfer of responsibility for digital technologies to the DDI. It poses the question: What non-digital science and technologies are left for the DST to promote and adapt for intelligence purposes?

A less widely reported but potentially consequential aspect of the CIA’s restructuring was the transfer of the IC’s open source organization to the CIA’s new DDI. The organization was also renamed in the process. The OSC was established in 2005 as an ODNI, or community, resource but its supervision and management was immediately delegated to the CIA director. The CIA has not explained how OSE’s activities and the open source mission more generally will be impacted by its subordination to the agency’s newest directorate.

It is clear, however, that there is an enormous advantage available for the intelligence service (or private enterprise) that first masters the gathering, processing, and evaluation of information now available in high volume via social networks. Exploitation of data from open sources admittedly presents significant technological and tradecraft challenges, but the potential rewards are great, and will only grow in the future.

For example, the U.S. IC has admitted that it faces a daunting challenge in satisfying intelligence requirements in the fluid, chaotic, and dangerous environment in Syria. The lack of a stable physical presence inside Syria and reliable local partners, together with the warring faction’s active deception measures, makes collection on the Syrian conflict exceedingly difficult. At the same time, however, many of the facts and insights our government is seeking about developments in Syria are likely buried somewhere in the mountain of digital voice, text, and image content posted daily by Syrians on social networks. It would be a mistake at this moment to allow the IC’s only entity devoted exclusively to the open-source intelligence mission to be de-prioritized or under-resourced. If that proves to be a byproduct of the CIA’s current restructuring, it would be prudent to dust off the perennial recommendation by past intelligence reform panels to establish a fully independent open-source intelligence agency.

Will the CIA’s “modernization” contribute to a more closely integrated and collaborative intelligence community?

To say that Langley did not receive the findings and recommendations of the blue-ribbon panel established to investigate the September 11, 2001 terror attacks warmly would be an understatement. The agency’s leaders and its workforce believed — not without a basis in fact — that the 9/11 Commission had failed to adequately credit the CIA’s efforts to penetrate, disrupt, and warn against al Qaeda’s emergence as a threat in the months and years before the attacks. It was, therefore, unsurprising that the CIA resisted the 2004 intelligence reform law that established the DNI as the leader of the IC, created a new National Counterterrorism Center, and mandated improvements in information sharing among intelligence agencies.

Relations between the DNI’s office and the CIA were strained from the outset, but hit rock bottom in 2010 when the White House publicly sided with the CIA director in a dispute with the DNI over the right to select the chiefs of overseas field stations. The current DNI, James Clapper, and CIA Director Brennan maintain a good working relationship, but the final reckoning on the beneficial impact of the last decade’s intelligence reforms is still some years off.

Further competition between the CIA, ODNI, and other IC agencies, is a distraction our government can ill afford in view of the number, diversity, and complexity of the security challenges we face. More relevant, the ODNI and IC simply cannot succeed without a CIA that excels at its three assigned missions (HUMINT collection, all-source analysis, and covert action) and also places its unique authorities, global presence, foreign relationships, and talented workforce in service of an integrated national intelligence effort. All this makes it fair to ask how the CIA’s restructuring will impact ODNI and the functioning of the rest of the IC.

Among the changes Brennan announced last year was the decision that the National Clandestine Service (NCS), the agency’s HUMINT component, would once again be known by its historic name — the Directorate of Operations, or DO. The NCS had been established in 2005 in response to a White House directive informed by the Silberman-Robb Commission’s recommendation that the CIA should assume a more prominent leadership role in improving HUMINT operations conducted by other IC agencies. (Think “Curveball,” and the ineffectual efforts to corroborate pre-war émigré reporting on Saddam Hussein’s alleged mobile biological weapons labs.)

The CIA’s director had, many years earlier, been designated by statute as the “national HUMINT manager,” but the DO generally preferred to focus on the CIA’s own operations, which it could more easily control. Other IC agencies engaged in human intelligence gathering were happy to hire, train, deploy, and supervise their own agent handlers. Over the last decade, the CIA created new positions, offices, and procedures aimed at improving the coordination and quality of HUMINT operations across the IC. These efforts resulted in progress, but a great deal still remains to be done on this front — in particular, to develop and enforce appropriate tradecraft and reporting standards for agencies that collect national security information inside the United States. It would be reassuring to hear from the CIA that the (undoubtedly popular) step of restoring the DO name does not signal a retrenchment from the agency’s more active role as the IC’s functional manager for this important collection discipline.

It will also be important to watch for signs of competition — or, more optimistically, greater collaboration — between the CIA’s new mission centers and the corresponding ODNI national intelligence managers (NIMs). Shortly after he assumed office, Clapper reorganized ODNI and established NIMs who were charged with integrating the work of IC agencies on a specific region or functional topic (such as Iran, Middle East, and WMD proliferation). The most effective NIMs are recognized subject-matter experts who develop and maintain strong relationships with counterparts in the major IC agencies, and through small staffs, help to rationalize budgets, define collection requirements, evaluate reporting, and engage regularly with important consumers of intelligence.

While the CIA’s mission center directors are principally responsible for integrating the agency’s operations, analysis, and covert activities, these new centers are large, well-resourced, and often include multiple liaison officers from other IC agencies. The assistant directors who lead the mission centers are generally senior CIA officers with broad experience and sterling reputations in the intelligence and policy communities. There may arise a temptation for its mission centers to compete with the NIMs for leadership of the IC’s overall effort on their shared topic. The DNI, CIA director, NIMs and CIA mission managers will all need to pursue collaborative relationships and take pains to ensure that their respective CIA and community responsibilities are clear and do not become a source of friction and inefficiency.

Change is overdue at the CIA. Director Brennan’s modernization initiative is ambitious, but also highly disruptive to a fundamentally conservative institution. The cultural shifts being pursued, in part through bureaucratic restructuring, will not come to full fruition before the leadership turns over at Langley. The next CIA director, and the agency’s congressional overseers, should resist advice to abandon and reverse the reforms, and instead use the opportunity to conduct a disciplined, objective, and outcome-based assessment of the impacts on the agency’s core missions. This essay proposes four questions that may inform that assessment.

This essay was reviewed and approved by the CIA’s Publication Review Board. The PRB requested removal of text that described a counterterrorism program previously acknowledged by the president and recent CIA directors.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen Slick directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas-Austin, where he also teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. His 28-year career as a CIA operations officer included service from 2005 to 2009 as a special assistant to the president and as the senior director for intelligence programs and reform on the National Security Council staff.

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