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America’s Spies Need to Watch Their Backs

America’s Spies Need to Watch Their Backs

America’s spies spend their days monitoring foreign enemies. If they want to see the biggest threat to their own well-being, they may need to look closer to home. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the incoming Donald Trump administration is working on plans to “restructure and pare back” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA, “cutting back on staffing at its Virginia headquarters and pushing more people out into field posts around the world.” (Trump spokesman Sean Spicer denied this report, but his record for veracity is not exactly unimpeachable.)

These are not, in theory, bad ideas. There is little doubt that the U.S. intelligence community is top-heavy and over-bureaucratized. There are too many paper pushers in Washington and too few effective case officers in the field with the kind of language skills, cultural knowledge, and moxie needed to penetrate “hard targets” like Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, and North Korea. To borrow British archetypes, we have a deficit of James Bonds and a surplus of Sir Humphrey Applebys; we could use more of the former and fewer of the latter.

But a couple of very important caveats are in order.

In the first place, the CIA has already been undergoing a massive and controversial restructuring under current Director John Brennan. His changes, described by one retired CIA officer, John Woodward Jr., as “the most far-reaching organizational shake up since the CIA’s creation in 1947,” involve shifting “the traditional power center of the CIA — away from separate operational, analytical and technical components focusing largely on strategic intelligence — to 10 more tactically oriented mission centers focusing on regional and transnational issues.” The most radical part of the shift, from the CIA’s perspective, is that these “mission centers fuse together operations officers, analysts, technical intelligence officers and others,” thus piercing the traditional wall between analysts and operators.

This may be a good thing (encouraging more collaboration), or it may be a bad thing (leading to the growth of analytical bias). It’s too soon to say, but what is undoubtedly true is that this is a big disruption, and it would be prudent for the Trump team to study its consequences before embarking on another shake-up. Making organizational changes can be fun and can provide the illusion that you are doing something significant, but too often they do little to improve the final product and can even interfere with it if the result is confusion and uncertainty about shifting responsibilities and lines of operation.

The second caveat is that the Trump team will be coming into office with an adversarial relationship toward the intelligence community of the kind we have not seen since Jimmy Carter’s administration in the post-Watergate era. President-elect Trump is engaging in an “unpresidented” Twitter campaign to denigrate and belittle the intelligence community and in particular its finding that Russian intelligence agencies engaged in hacking designed to hurt Hillary Clinton and to elect him.

On Jan. 3, Trump tweeted: “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” The scare quotes around “intelligence” and “Russian hacking,” designed to belittle the work of intelligence professionals, will have been lost on no one at Langley. As James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, there’s an “an important distinction” between “healthy skepticism” regarding intelligence and “disparagement” of the intelligence gatherers. Trump’s tweet clearly crossed that line.

In rejecting the intelligence community’s conclusion about Russian hacking, Trump appears to be giving greater weight to the words of Julian Assange, an accused sex criminal whose organization, WikiLeaks, has been outed by U.S. intelligence as a conduit for Russian intelligence and which has been responsible for publishing numerous secret documents that imperiled American agents and interests. On Jan. 4, Trump tweeted: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!” Assange has previously said WikiLeaks gets its information anonymously, so how can he possibly be so certain that it was not Russian intelligence that fed him these documents? And why would anyone, ever, trust what he says? Yet Trump takes Assange’s word over the considered conclusion of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies.

Trump and his team are positively bristling with animus toward the intelligence community, which they (wrongly) suspect of trying to delegitimize his victory. The Journal cited one individual “close to the Trump transition” as saying: “The view from the Trump team is the intelligence world has become completely politicized. They all need to be slimmed down. The focus will be on restructuring the agencies and how they interact.”

Given Trump’s dispute with the intelligence agencies, there is a good chance that any restructuring he implements will be seen, rightly or wrongly, not as a way to optimize the agencies’ performance but rather as payback for what he sees as a personal affront. There is a real risk that after Jan. 20 the intelligence community will experience a crisis of confidence the likes of which we have not seen since the witch hunts of the 1970s led by the Church and Pike Committees in Congress and by various muckrakers in the media who delighted in publishing the names of CIA operatives and uncovering CIA front organizations.

In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger described the consequences of the anti-CIA atmosphere of that period: “Buffeted by conflicting pressures and against the background of so many careers destroyed, CIA personnel discovered that even carrying out orders provided no protection against shifting public moods. As a result, cramped caution became their refuge. Each CIA employee in effect needed his own lawyer to check whether his orders or his response to them might not make him a victim of the next wave of purification. It became far easier and safer to bury oneself in bureaucratic paperwork than to stick one’s neck out in a profession in which the risks at home sometimes exceeded those in the field.”

It is not hard to imagine intelligence officers having a similar reaction to the Trump takeover. Those working on the Russia account must be particularly shellshocked at the moment, understandably worried about where the new administration’s loyalties lie. The predictable result is that CIA case officers will become less aggressive in recruiting assets and Russian citizens will become less eager to volunteer information.

The No. 1 task for the Trump administration should not be to reorganize the intelligence community; it should be to reassure the intelligence community. That will be the whopping great job confronting former Rep. Mike Pompeo, nominated to be Trump’s CIA director, and former Sen. Dan Coats, reportedly chosen to be his director of national intelligence. If they fail to win the spies’ confidence, the nation’s first line of defense will be in jeopardy.

Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images