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Four tasks for Petraeus to fix the CIA
Appointing Gen. David Petraeus to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency might make good politics for Obama — bottling Petraeus up in a strictly non-partisan position — and may or may not be a good move for Petraeus, depending on his future ambitions. My interest is more prosaic: would the move be good for ...
Appointing Gen. David Petraeus to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency might make good politics for Obama — bottling Petraeus up in a strictly non-partisan position — and may or may not be a good move for Petraeus, depending on his future ambitions. My interest is more prosaic: would the move be good for the CIA?
Possibly. Petraeus is not just smart: he is capable of challenging groupthink, which is exactly what the CIA needs. If Petraeus is ready to rewrite the book on intelligence the way he did, not just for counterinsurgency doctrine, but for the Army’s culture as a whole, he could do wonders for the CIA. But if Petraeus lets himself go native or surrounds himself by the intelligence establishment, he’ll just keep the chair warm for the next Director.
Let me say right off that I do not think the intelligence community is hopelessly broken, it does provide an irreplaceable service to policymakers and I have the highest respect for the folks I worked with during seven years at the CIA. But I do not think the taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck. Here are a few things Petraeus should tackle.
Get the analysts out of the shadows.
The Directorate of Intelligence (DI) has the capability of being a leading foreign affairs think tank in the world. Instead, it has largely limited itself to being a massive, overpriced, secretive magazine staff for a readership of one, pouring most of its resources in to the President’s Daily Brief (PDB). Analysts live under a maze of restrictions that bar them from public activities, ostensibly to protect their objectivity and credibility. The restrictions are silly. Instead of enhancing their credibility, the restrictions just isolate them and make contact with other experts in their field difficult, awkward, and sporadic.
Analysts can and should be open and regular participants in the world of academia, think tanks, and conferences, encouraged to publish and speak on their areas of expertise. Their writing may actually have a larger impact if they focus less on the PDB and more on the broader foreign policy establishment, which is where policy is shaped in broad outline before it makes it to the President. Petraeus might even experiment with having the DI publish a regular, unclassified product. It’s not like we keep our classified documents secret anyway.
Get the National Clandestine Service (NCS, or, to any self-respecting intelligence professional, the DO) to report gray information
The operations officers of the clandestine service are an invaluable tool of national security by collecting human intelligence. In non-spy lingo, that means they persuade foreigners to sell secrets. However, they focus exclusively on secrets. The service vets its reports to ensure that it is only reporting information that is sufficiently "clandestine." That is understandable: the NCS wants to ensure it is not duplicating the media or the State Department. However, the division between "open" information reported by the media and the State Department, and "secret" information reported by the NCS, is artificial. There is also gray information, stuff that is important, not strictly a secret, but also very hard to get. Tribal dynamics, for example, are not "secrets" but they are rarely reported with much detail or accuracy by anybody. In war zones and failed states, NCS officers are often the only people well-placed to observe and report this kind of information. They should be encouraged to do so, but that would require a profound cultural and institutional shift in what the NCS understands its mission to be.
Draw down the counterterrorism surge
A huge proportion of the intelligence community’s assets were rightly diverted to tracking terrorists after 2001. But terrorism is unlikely to be the U.S.’s principle foreign policy challenge in coming decades. The principle challenges probably will include, at one pole, China and Russia, and, at the other pole, widespread state failure and anarchy in much of the world. Islamism, of the political, radical, extremist, or violent variety (pick your modifier), may also be a long-term challenge. But that is a broader challenge than al-Qaida’s terrorist campaign and includes political, diplomatic, and economic facets to it. My sense is that we should rebalance the allocation of our resources away from CT and towards these broader challenges. Our heavy focus on counterterrorism is too narrow.
Analysts and operatives can, on occasion, go native. They start to see the world through the perspective of the foreign country (Pakistan, to take a completely random example) on which they spend their careers. This destroys their objectivity and undermines their usefulness to U.S. policymakers. The solution is not simply to rotate personnel to different countries every few years, because that erodes their depth and expertise. We need to encourage depth without sacrificing perspective. Petraeus should form a cross-directorate task force to study the problem, develop ways to identify and track clientitis, and find ways to prevent or cure it.