The Art of the Deal

Why the CIA needs a diplomat, not a spy, to lead it.


With the abrupt departure of Director David Petraeus, the revolving door on the CIA’s seventh floor continues to spin: The average tenure of the agency’s last five leaders has been less than 20 months.

The timing of this leadership upheaval could not have come at a worse time for the agency. The CIA once ruled the operational and analytic fiefdoms of the U.S. Intelligence Community with near-monopolistic control. But bureaucratic reorganization and the expansion of military intelligence during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars brought an end to a half-century of preeminence. The steady diminution of the CIA’s influence over the past decade echoes the travails of Microsoft — the spy agency is weakened, beset by competitors, and facing an uncertain future.

The paradox of this post-9/11 reality is that the CIA is now more mission-focused than at any time since the height of the Cold War. Its aggressive, collaborative prosecution of terrorist networks has been wildly successful and saved American lives here and abroad. This was by design, aided in large part by reform efforts to eliminate intelligence agency stovepipes, force information sharing, and enhance paramilitary capabilities. The results have borne out the wisdom of these and other steps to remake the Intelligence Community.  

And yet, the CIA’s traditional primacy has taken a number of body blows. The creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its "community" superstructure in 2004 abolished the CIA director’s authority beyond Langley and foreign stations. Increased military intelligence collection and operations overseas sometimes lacked coordination and caused confusion in the field as to who was in charge. The proliferation of new intelligence and analysis offices, such as the one within the Department of Homeland Security, created rival (and welcome, some would contend) judgments and estimates. Even inside the White House, the president has appointed his own trusted homeland security and counterterrorism deputy, John Brennan, to ride point on pressing security threats. With remarkable swiftness, the CIA director was crowded off of his privileged perch as the president’s chief intelligence advisor. 

Those reportedly on the shortlist of qualified candidates to replace Petraeus possess the intelligence expertise traditionally sought to run the agency. For the next CIA head to excel, however, more than a mastery of our nation’s intelligence apparatus is required. Bureaucratic tug-of-wars and overseas challenges have rewritten the chief spymaster’s job description. The next director must have the skills of a hard-nosed negotiator and the acumen of a Washington insider if the agency is to reclaim lost ground. Being an experienced clandestine operative, veteran intelligence manager, or seasoned congressional overseer is no longer sufficient. The CIA needs a power broker, because only a director with clout, someone who is well-versed in the art of the deal, will be able to win the fights brewing within the administration’s national security team.

In the intelligence universe, the "battlefield" is always evolving and the lines of engagement are in constant flux, particularly when it comes to transnational threats like terrorism. Clear parameters of authority and operational responsibility are essential in order to locate, track, monitor, and — if need be — arrest or attack the enemy. Bringing this cohesion to the Intelligence Community has been a necessary and at times painful process — and one that still continues today.

The Defense Department moved aggressively after 9/11 to ramp up counterterrorism collection, and it expanded its footprint further after the 2003 Iraq invasion. A more robust, forward-leaning military counterterrorism strategy was needed, but efforts were not always coordinated with the CIA and foreign missions and information were not always corroborated and vetted before making it into the national policy chain. Most notably, the insertion into senior policymaker briefings of faulty Defense Department analysis claiming an operational relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda promoted a linkage that the Intelligence Community did not believe existed, and buttressed calls for military action. Notwithstanding efforts to resolve such issues, reducing the tension between defense and intelligence collection efforts overseas remains unfinished business for the incoming director.

The operational command of missile-equipped drones is another flashpoint between the intelligence and defense communities. Who exactly controls these assets — the lethal point of the intelligence spear, if you will — both inside and outside military areas of operations? There have been vocal critics of the "militarization" of the CIA in recent years, but similar concerns exist over the military’s mission creep into the civilian agency’s traditional clandestine portfolio.

And what of the growing, long-term threat of cyber attack against the homeland? The Pentagon created U.S. Cyber Command in 2009 to protect military networks, and similar efforts are underway at the Department of Homeland Security to secure civilian networks. With the National Security Agency carrying out both Defense Department combat support and Intelligence Community duties, the question remains as to how the responsibilities for cyber operations beyond America’s borders are to be distributed among the key players. If the post-9/11 axiom that the best defense is a good offense remains valid, then the outcome of this ongoing policy debate will be consequential for both the CIA’s prerogatives and the protection of the nation’s cyber infrastructure.  

The negotiation challenges facing the next director will not all be inside the Beltway. Strong foreign partners have and will continue to be the backbone of overseas intelligence operations. The new head of the CIA will be asking increasingly skittish — and, in some cases, suspect — foreign services to do more in moving against terrorist networks and hunting down operatives, as well as to cooperate on other shared security priorities. Hammering out these sensitive particulars requires the deft hand of a savvy and respected broker.

CIA director is arguably the most thankless job in Washington. The agency workforce is highly-motivated, and their individual and collective efforts to protect the United States are shrouded in secrecy — until, that is, there is a leaked failure. And the agency continues to pay a price in the public’s mind for past missteps, both real and imagined. The operational tempo will remain high at Langley and in the field for the foreseeable future. CIA employees will be looking for a leader who will not only support the agenda of the Intelligence Community as a whole and work collaboratively with his or her defense counterparts, but also be an effective advocate for the CIA at the interagency negotiation table — someone who can help restore the agency’s centrality in carrying out the nation’s most sensitive operations.   

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