From Cyberspace to Africa, the CIA Looks to Fights of the Future

The agency has spent years struggling to balance its efforts to hunt down individual militants with its traditional focus on spying on foreign governments.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) lo
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The CIA is reorganizing itself around 10 new “mission centers” designed to better focus the agency’s capabilities and make a single individual responsible for work in each part of the globe and a few key mission areas.

The creation of the centers is the largest of several changes that CIA Director John Brennan announced this week. The centers will be organized by geography (for example, Africa) or function (like counterterrorism). Other reforms include the establishment of a Directorate of Digital Innovation, and an initiative to make the agency a more professionally rewarding place to work by liberating intelligence officers from what Brennan called the “stovepipes” of their particular discipline, be it espionage, analysis, or technology.

The revamp grew out of a three-month study conducted by a nine-person team who collectively had more than 200 years of experience working at the CIA, according to Brennan. The team surveyed several thousand agency employees, and spoke with former directors and deputy directors of the CIA, as well as former national security advisors and management consultants. The study concluded in mid-December, and the changes will take effect over the next year.

The new plan amounts to the most far-reaching internal restructuring of the CIA in decades, and comes as the agency struggles to balance its growing counterterrorism operations — in which agency-operated drones have killed hundreds of suspected militants around the world — with its traditional focus on mounting espionage operations against foreign governments like those of Russia and China. Many longtime CIA officials have complained that its tradecraft skills have atrophied as the agency has focused more and more resources on hunting and killing individual militants.

Brennan took issue with a news report that the recently retired head of the National Clandestine Service — in effect, the nation’s stop spy, who remains undercover — had left his job in part because he opposed the changes. The officer’s retirement “was not the result of this” reorganization, said Brennan, who called the former NCS head “one of the best intelligence officers I’ve had the privilege to work with.”

The establishment of the mission centers seeks to address Brennan’s frustration with the agency’s current setup, where no one person is in charge of a particular region, or a particular “functional area.” The CIA is divided into four directorates, each representing a different discipline: the National Clandestine Service (which conducts espionage); Intelligence (which does analysis); Science and Technology; and Support.

“I cannot hold right now one of my directorate heads responsible for the achievement of our mission in a place like Africa, because they each have a part of it,” Brennan said.

He said a better setup is in place at the State Department, which assigns assistant secretaries of state responsibility for geographic regions and other mission areas. “We don’t have the equivalent of an assistant secretary here,” he said. “We’re going to address that.”

Each mission center will combine personnel from all directorates and be led by an assistant director. The agency’s Counterterrorism Center, established in 1986, has served as something of a model. It will morph into one of the functional area mission centers (as will the agency’s Counterproliferation Center), and Brennan used it as an example of the role the new centers will play.

“I will hold the assistant director for counterterrorism [responsible] for ensuring that we’re doing everything possible to prevent attacks, to build capacity of our partners on the counterterrorism front, [and] ensuring that we’re making progress against the counterterrorism target worldwide,” he said.

In the past, agency officials have been wary of pairing analysts with case officers because of a fear that the former would lose their objectivity and tailor their work to the needs of a particular mission. Brennan insisted that such a move could be made safely, pointing to the Counterterrorism Center — which helped hunt down Osama bin Laden and has been responsible for killing significant numbers of militants around the globe — as evidence.

“We’ve already demonstrated that, in the counterterrorism realm, we can maintain that objectivity and integrity,” he said, adding that analysts would be held responsible for ensuring that their work was “not skewed” by their proximity to operational officers.

The new Directorate of Digital Innovation will be in charge of the agency’s approach to the digital and cyber world, including cybersecurity, data storage, and data science, Brennan said. “This directorate’s going to work very closely with other agency components because the digital world touches every aspect of our business,” he said.

The revamp also involves the renaming of two existing directorates. The National Clandestine Service will revert to its former name, the Directorate of Operations, while the Directorate of Intelligence will become the Directorate of Analysis.

Brennan is also creating a Talent Development Center of Excellence designed to ensure that individual CIA officers have a chance to do more than one type of job during their years at the agency. Frustration over spending their entire careers doing one kind of job emerged as “the number one issue” among employees surveyed in the three-month study, particularly among the new generation of CIA employees. “They come with such energy and enthusiasm, and it’s a group of folks who really want to be able to interact with each other,” Brennan said. Instead, they sometimes find themselves “channeled into a compartment” that wasn’t what “they were expecting, or what they thought was optimal.”

The CIA has already briefed the reshuffling to key people in Congress and the executive branch, as well as partners in the intelligence community, who have expressed “strong support,” Brennan said.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor