Dennis Blair was itching for a fight. In May 2009, the retired U.S. Navy admiral was serving as the director of national intelligence (DNI). Theoretically, Blair’s title gave him oversight of the CIA and Washington’s constellation of 16 other spy agencies. Yet, in reality, the director was powerless even to designate the senior American spy in a given country—a rank that, for decades, had traditionally been given to the CIA station chief in capitals from London to Beirut. Blair felt entitled to have charge over this. So sidestepping the White House, he sent a written order codifying that the DNI would now be the one to select the most senior spies. But there was one more important change: That person could be associated with any agency within the intelligence community. Though Blair said that the designee would almost always continue to be selected from the CIA, this didn’t sit well with the agency’s then director, Leon Panetta. He responded by shooting off a cable to all of the CIA’s overseas stations effectively telling them to ignore Blair’s memo completely.
The media dubbed it a “turf war,” but it was surely an asymmetrical one: Blair’s office was rendered impotent, simply shoved aside by a CIA bent on securing its hold on power.
A few months later, when President Barack Obama’s tumultuous first year in office was drawing to a close, Blair saw another opportunity to reassert the prerogative of his office, writes journalist Mark Mazzetti in The Way of the Knife, a detailed account of the period. Upon inheriting a number of highly classified covert operations programs from former President George W. Bush, Obama wanted to do a top-to-bottom review of each one. The programs in question involved such activities as the CIA’s efforts to derail Iran’s nuclear program and the agency’s use of drones to kill militants inside Pakistan. Again, the cracks in Blair’s authority were revealed: The DNI, as determined by the 2004 legislation that created the position, was to be the focal point for intelligence support to the president and other senior government leaders, and was allowed some say in budgetary matters, but was not granted command over any covert missions abroad.
That the CIA was given a direct line to the White House for open-ended covert programs was troubling to Blair. To him, such programs had the potential to outlive their usefulness and serve as temptingly easy options for policymakers unsure of how to negotiate a complex issue like Iran. Blair wanted each program to be debated in full before final decisions were made about whether to continue, curtail, or potentially abandon them. Panetta, however, felt otherwise, arguing that attempts to impose formal guidelines and procedures would undermine the efficacy of the agency’s programs. When all was said and done in the fall of 2009, the administration formally signed off on each of the CIA’s covert efforts, paving the way for the agency to be lavished with ever more resources. (In 2013, for example, the agency requested $14.7 billion in funding, up from the $4.8 billion it received in 1994, according to the Washington Post and documents leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.)
That same fall, when Panetta asked the White House to significantly expand his agency’s secret war against al Qaeda and its allies, the CIA chief thought he might get five of the 10 things he was requesting, wrote Daniel Klaidman in Kill or Capture. Instead, Panetta got them all, according to Mazzetti, including money to buy more armed drones and explicit permission to use them in larger areas of Pakistan than before: “The CIA gets what it wants,” Obama bluntly told his aides. Blair was forced out seven months later.
Since its creation in 1947, the CIA has steadily evolved from an agency devoted to its mission of spying on foreign governments to one whose current priority is tracking and killing individual militants in an increasing number of countries. It has been well documented that the agency’s growing scope and depth of influence in the counterterrorism fight reflects its growing skill at hunting America’s enemies from Pakistan to Yemen. What is more surprising, however, is the CIA’s adept navigation of public scandals and its outmaneuvering of the DNI and opponents from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, and the rest of the intelligence community. Through such machinations, the spy agency has managed to weaken or eliminate crucial counterweights to its own power.
To be sure, an empowered and largely autonomous CIA has global repercussions. Much of what the world associates with U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks—from drone strikes in the Middle East to the network of secret prisons around the world and the torture that occurred within their walls—originated at Langley. And given the agency’s dominance, the CIA seems bound to retain its outsize role in how the United States acts and is perceived abroad. With the agency at the forefront of another looming U.S. war in the Middle East, its primacy will again be put to the test.
Today, the CIA is the tip of the spear of the administration’s growing effort to beat back the Islamic State, which controls broad stretches of Iraq and Syria. CIA officers in small bases along the Turkish and Jordanian borders have helped to find, vet, and train members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition so they can fight to dislodge the Islamic State and, ultimately, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. In addition, the agency is responsible for helping to funnel weapons and other supplies to rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, which dwarfs the CIA in size, resources, and congressional backing, is dispatching Special Forces personnel to the region to carry out basically the same training mission. But if the two pillars of the national security establishment were to collide over Iraq and Syria, it would be a mistake to assume that the CIA would lose out. For better—and sometimes for worse—the CIA has been winning just these types of fights since the war on terror began 14 long years ago.
Sen. Frank Church holds up a poison-dart gun as Sen. John Tower looks at the weapon during a probe of the CIA in September 1975.
In the fall of 2002, a Predator drone flying silently in the skies above Yemen watched an SUV drive down a dirt road in a sparsely populated part of the impoverished country. Operatives monitoring the drone’s video feed alerted the CIA’s then-director, George Tenet, who had been helping to oversee the effort to find Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, al Qaeda’s top field commander in Yemen and a suspect in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors and wounded dozens more. It seemed the CIA finally had the terrorist in its sights. Tenet contacted Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, a top officer at the military’s Central Command, and reportedly asked him to decide what to do. “This SUV over here is the one that has [him] in it,” DeLong, in an interview with PBS’s Frontline, later recalled Tenet saying. “I said, ‘OK, fine.’ You know, ‘Shoot him.’”
Tenet gave the order, and the drone sent a Hellfire missile arcing toward the vehicle, obliterating it. Harethi was killed in the strike, along with a number of lower-ranking militants. It was the first confirmed assassination of a wanted terrorist by a CIA drone, a landmark in the agency’s startling transformation from what Mazzetti describes as a “traditional espionage service devoted to stealing the secrets of foreign governments” to a “killing machine, an organization consumed with man hunting.”
The targeted killing led to no discernible dissent or soul-searching within the CIA about the agency’s increasing comfort with eliminating perceived enemies across the globe. By 2004, the agency had waded even more deeply into the dark world of assassinations by hiring outside contractors associated with Blackwater, a firm synonymous with abuses in Iraq, to kill individual militants on the ground. In June 2009, Panetta notified Congress about the existence of the secret program, adding that he had ended it shortly after he had assumed the top post at the spy agency earlier that year. He and other CIA officials said the contractors had never killed anyone, but that did little to mollify lawmakers furious at the thought that the agency had effectively hired mercenaries to assassinate enemies with limited government oversight. Harethi’s killing had signaled a sea change within the agency—perhaps a jarring one for many CIA veterans who came of age in the years directly following the 1975 Senate hearings, led by Idaho Democrat Frank Church, that detailed failed CIA plots to target foreign leaders. The next year, then-President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905, which barred the CIA from engaging in political assassinations anywhere in the world.
Nevertheless, the CIA returned to the killing business with a vengeance after 9/11, with Bush and later Obama making drones Washington’s weapon of choice in the hunt for individual militants around the globe. White House and CIA officials say that the unmanned vehicles allow for a historically high level of precision and insist that they have resulted in few civilian casualties. Human rights groups, however, have marshaled considerable evidence suggesting that the strikes have killed hundreds of innocent people. In Pakistan alone, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates, CIA drones killed as many as 960 civilians between June 2004 and April 2015, including up to 207 children. The administration, which has even used the aircraft to target militants who are U.S. citizens, is unapologetic about the perceived value of the technology. “Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb-makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield,” Obama said in May 2013 during a lengthy speech about the program. “Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities, and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.”
The CIA was an early proponent of utilizing the armed Predator drones to which Obama was referring—a concrete reminder that the agency had been working on counterterrorism long before it became Washington’s primary focus. The CIA established its Counterterrorist Center (later renamed the Counterterrorism Center) in 1986, set up a team devoted solely to tracking Osama bin Laden in 1996, and, as articulated by then-Director Tenet, declared “war” on al Qaeda as far back as 1998. “You didn’t have the secretary of defense [declaring war],” Hank Crumpton, who had a long CIA career before becoming the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, told Foreign Policy. “You didn’t have the FBI director or anyone else in the intelligence community taking that kind of leadership role.”
John Brennan meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in December 2012. Brennan was a close advisor to the president prior to being tapped to head the CIA in 2013.
The abundance of resources the CIA devoted to counterterrorism made the agency’s failure to help detect or prevent the 9/11 plot all the more striking. In the wake of the attacks, the U.S. government created a bipartisan commission of 10 Washington insiders to examine the circumstances surrounding the disaster and to recommend ways to reduce the threat of future attacks. When it released its findings in 2004, the commission excoriated the CIA for failing to properly track two of the eventual hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, and for not “informing the FBI about one future hijacker’s U.S. visa or his companion’s travel to the United States.” A separate report from a joint House-Senate panel found that the CIA knew the two men had terrorism ties but didn’t relay that information to the FBI until just weeks before the attacks. That delay, the panel found, meant that the FBI wasn’t able to take advantage of the fact that one of its informants had a relationship with the pair. “[T]he informant’s contacts with the hijackers, had they been capitalized on, would have given the San Diego FBI field office perhaps the Intelligence Community’s best chance to unravel the September 11 plot,” the report from the House-Senate commission concluded.
The CIA also was notoriously wrong about Saddam Hussein’s alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, a cataclysmic mistake that eased the path to the Iraq War and left a permanent black stain on the agency. More recently, it has been accused of failing to fully predict the rise of the Islamic State or Russia’s plans to invade and annex Crimea. Obama himself seemed to take a shot at the CIA and other intelligence agencies in an interview in late 2014 when he said the community had collectively “underestimated” how much Syria’s chaos would spur the emergence of the Islamic State. The CIA and its defenders insist that the agency provided early warnings about both the militants and Russian President Vladimir Putin, alarms that were effectively ignored by the White House.
Due to a number of bureaucratic advantages, the CIA has been able to stay one step ahead of its critics and rivals within the intelligence community. The DNI, the position Blair was holding during his losing fight with the agency, doesn’t have the authority to hire or fire a CIA director; that’s left to the president. Consequently, successive CIA directors have had closer ties to the president than their nominal bosses, allowing the agency heads to bypass the DNI with impunity. While the DNI position is barely a decade old, the CIA’s record of maintaining tight bonds with the White House and other Washington power brokers stretches back to its origins.
The agency has long enjoyed unofficial access to other centers of influence in Washington because much of its workforce has been plugged into “the Ivy League, Eastern power structure of American politics,” according to a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), one of the CIA’s rivals within the United States’ sprawling intelligence community. For top White House officials and powerful lawmakers alike, “the kind of people that were running the CIA were the same kind of people that they were likely to have gone to college with,” said the former analyst, who asked to remain anonymous. From President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, when Princeton University alumnus Allen Dulles headed the agency, to Ford’s administration, when Yale University graduate George H.W. Bush ran the CIA, to the Obama administration, when Princeton’s David Petraeus took the helm, Ivy League connections have been a valuable asset for those in the agency’s top post.
The CIA also has simultaneously retained its record of coziness with the president. John Brennan, the agency’s current director, was one of Obama’s primary advisors on intelligence and counterterrorism during the 2008 presidential campaign and spent four years in the West Wing as the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. “There’s nobody in the intel community with that kind of access or political backing that Brennan would have,” the former DIA analyst said. “Now, will that continue? Will the next director have it? Probably not, but Brennan certainly has it.” By the time Brennan was tapped to head the CIA in 2013, Obama was in his second term and had come to understand the agency’s value. John McLaughlin, who was the CIA’s deputy director before serving as its acting director in 2004, spent decades at the agency and worked for presidents from both parties. He said Obama, like many other presidents, had little appreciation for what the CIA did or could do until after he was inaugurated. “I don’t think he came to office with a negative attitude towards the CIA, but I do think he came into office with a gut interest in domestic matters and then found that foreign policy was going to become more important to his administration than he’d realized,” McLaughlin told Foreign Policy. “At that point he realized that the CIA was part of his tool kit and he’d be better off using that tool.”
This is perhaps the CIA’s biggest advantage: It effectively answers to no one except the president. The DIA, which collects and analyzes military-specific intelligence, works for the Pentagon; the FBI, which has key domestic counterintelligence and counterterrorism responsibilities, listens to the Justice Department; and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which ensures that intelligence is supporting U.S. diplomacy, answers to its bosses at Foggy Bottom. Even the National Security Agency (NSA), by far the largest and best-funded part of the intelligence community, is technically part of the Pentagon. The CIA is not. The end result, said Crumpton, the agency veteran, is that it has “unprecedented covert action authority in a covert action war.”
The CIA was an early proponent of utilizing Predator drones.
The CIA has worked hard to keep that power, even when it has meant tangling with other members of the intelligence community.
In the spring of 2012, the DIA unveiled an ambitious plan to expand its small corps of spies, which it branded the Defense Clandestine Service (DCS). Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who took command of the DIA that summer, made the effort a top priority. In particular, he emphasized the importance of deploying more officers into actual or potential war zones to collect intelligence on defense priorities, such as which airfields the U.S. military could use in a crisis.
The idea ran into trouble from the start, with some CIA officials actively working to block the emergence of what they saw as a potential rival to the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS). Formerly known as the Directorate of Operations (a name Brennan is resurrecting), the NCS is the CIA’s human intelligence arm and aims to steal secrets of strategic importance from foreign governments and organizations. It is the basis for the CIA’s self-image, and for its public reputation. Thus, the agency is leery of any competing Pentagon efforts. “This is the sweet spot for the CIA,” said Joseph DeTrani, a retired agency officer who formerly served as a senior advisor to the director of national intelligence. “Their comparative advantage is the human side of the business.”
Spokespeople deny that the agency tried to scuttle the creation of the Pentagon’s new spy organization; rather, they say, the CIA hoped it would be able to share the burden of collecting and analyzing the flood of raw intelligence about the country’s enemies. Still, several current and former Defense Department officials claim some in the CIA were fiercely opposed to the DCS’s creation and feared potential overlap between the two agencies. Flynn faced significant opposition inside his own agency, but “he had even more detractors and enemies from the outside, particularly the other three-letter agency, that did not believe that an expansion of that writ was what DIA needed,” said a Defense Department official who works closely with the DIA. “Those frictions were ongoing.”
One of the most effective weapons in the tussle was the CIA’s control over lesser-known levers of government bureaucracy. Flynn’s plan to place additional spies abroad would have required an increase in the number of U.S. embassy positions into which the DCS could place its case officers undercover. The State Department imposes tight limits on the number of such diplomatic positions, and the CIA has a stranglehold on those that exist. While neither Foggy Bottom nor Langley officially rebuffed the DIA’s request, the slowness of their response was “a huge limiting factor,” a former senior Defense Department official said.
Such scuffles are nothing new between the two agencies, though the CIA often has the upper hand because of the sheer number of its alumni in key positions throughout the U.S. government. Two former CIA directors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, became secretaries of defense in succession. Agency vet Michael Vickers, who is credited with playing a key role in the CIA’s covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, was assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict from 2007 to 2011, before becoming undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the third-ranking position in the Pentagon and one that gave him control over all Pentagon intelligence agencies and programs. (In March, Vickers announced that he would retire effective April 30.) Flynn’s civilian deputy at the DIA, David Shedd, was also a CIA veteran, as is Shedd’s successor, Doug Wise.
Flynn retired abruptly in August 2014. Within six months, Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart took over the DIA. In March of this year, Stewart briefed a group of intelligence community veterans on his top priorities as director. “Winning back” Capitol Hill, developing future leaders, and improving the overall quality of the DIA’s workforce all made the cut. The Defense Clandestine Service did not.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein arrives in December 2014 to speak to reporters about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation methods.
On an unseasonably warm and sunny day in March 2014, then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein strode to a wooden podium on the floor of the Senate, glanced down at a sheet of notes, and proceeded to level a series of extraordinary accusations at the CIA. The agency, she said, had broken the law by searching the computers of Senate staffers working on a multiyear investigation into the agency’s Bush-era detention and torture of terrorism suspects.
“I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States’ Constitution,” she said. “It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function.”
Other powerful Democrats made similar charges—Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the allegations had “serious constitutional implications”—but Feinstein’s were the most striking to many inside and outside the CIA because she had long been seen as one of the intelligence community’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill. In 2013, when Snowden’s first leaks began to appear in the media, the veteran California senator penned a USA Today op-ed arguing that the NSA’s bulk collection of information about the telephone calls of hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans was both “legal” and “effective in helping to prevent terrorist plots against the U.S. and our allies.” Feinstein also staunchly backed the CIA’s use of drones to kill terrorism suspects, including militants with U.S. citizenship, without trial or even public disclosure of what alleged activities had put them in the agency’s cross-hairs.
The cause for her change of heart was a dispute that seemed more like the plot of a spy novel than an actual series of events capable of bringing the relationship between the CIA and its Capitol Hill overseers to a 40-year low. Starting in 2009, Senate investigators had spent more than five years researching and fine-tuning a 6,000-page report probing the agency’s Bush-era detention and interrogation policies, which included barbarous techniques like waterboarding that Obama himself had bluntly described as torture. To research the program, staffers had to use computers, provided by the agency, in a CIA facility in Northern Virginia. In her lengthy floor speech, Feinstein accused the CIA of illegally searching the computers the staffers were using to examine millions of highly classified documents. She said the move was a potential violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures”; the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a 1986 law that makes it a federal crime to access government computers without permission; and Executive Order 12333, which bars the CIA from carrying out domestic surveillance activities.
Agency officials, for their part, made some extraordinary charges of their own. They accused Senate staffers of improperly removing classified documents that fell outside the scope of the initial congressional inquiry and that were protected by executive privilege. The CIA referred its allegations to the Justice Department, and the FBI opened an investigation into the staffers’ activities. Brennan said Feinstein’s allegations were “spurious” and “wholly unsupported by the facts.” Feinstein asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the CIA had broken the law. In July 2014, Brennan admitted that his personnel had in fact hacked into the computers of the Senate investigators, just as Feinstein had charged.
The fireworks came as the White House was making a final push to blunt the impact of the coming torture report. In a tangible sign of the administration’s willingness to go to the mat for the agency, Obama had White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough fly to San Francisco to personally press Feinstein to redact sizable portions of the report. She made some last-minute changes to placate the White House, but ignored its other pleas and released the unclassified executive summary of the report in early December. The behavior the Senate investigators had unearthed, she said, was a “stain on [U.S.] values and on [its] history.”
In page after page of vivid and sometimes stomach-turning detail, the report bluntly accused the agency of torturing prisoners and systematically misleading the Bush administration, Congress, and the public about the value of the intelligence it gleaned from the years of brutality, which included threatening to rape and kill detainees’ mothers and forcibly feeding some prisoners through their rectums. One section detailed how, in late 2002 and early 2003, a CIA operative interrogating al Qaeda suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri threatened him with a power drill. Another section concluded that the CIA lied in 2011 when it said violent interrogations of al Qaeda detainees had yielded information that led to bin Laden’s killing; rather, the report indicated that the intelligence had been acquired before the militants were initially tortured. Within days of the report’s release, the CIA summoned reporters to Langley for a rare news conference with Brennan.
The director gave some ground. He disavowed the agency’s post-9/11 system for detaining and pitilessly interrogating terrorism suspects and said some of the specific methods were “abhorrent.” But the CIA chief angered many Democrats by refusing to use Obama’s own terminology and admit that the agency had used “torture.” He also said that there were no laws explicitly banning what his agency’s personnel had done to those in their custody, which meant a future president could again order the brutalization of detainees if he or she chose to.
The comments infuriated Feinstein, who took to Twitter—while Brennan was still talking—to contest in real time nearly every point he made. “Future president could reverse executive order, reinstate [the enhanced interrogation techniques] program. Legislation is needed,” she wrote in one tweet.
Less than three weeks later, Feinstein sent Obama a letter outlining her plan to introduce a bill that would, in her words, “close all torture loopholes” by barring the CIA’s long-term detention of prisoners and preventing agency personnel from using interrogation methods that aren’t included in an Army Field Manual. That would make the use of savage interrogation techniques like waterboarding a violation of U.S. law—and not something a president could simply allow by executive order.
The fact that Feinstein feels the need to draft such a bill (on which she was still working in mid-April) is another sign of Obama’s steady willingness to embrace the sorts of Bush-era CIA abuses that he took office promising to roll back. The White House refuses to say whether it will support her legislation, which has virtually no chance of making it through the Republican-controlled Senate. Brennan, meanwhile, remains in his post. “[Obama] is the one who can ask me to stay or to go,” he said in March 2014. If anything, the CIA chief has assumed an even more public role as the face of the administration’s efforts to sell its controversial nuclear talks with Iran to skeptical lawmakers and to defend against critics who argue that the administration lacks a strategy for defeating the Islamic State.
Feinstein lost her position as the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee when Republicans swept the 2014 midterm elections and won a majority in the Senate. The panel’s new chairman, Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, said that the CIA has in recent years gotten not too little public oversight, but too much. “I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly,” he told reporters in 2014. He has already begun putting words into action: One of his first acts as chairman was to send Obama a letter asking that all copies of the full torture report that Feinstein had sent to various executive branch agencies be “returned immediately.” Privacy experts think Burr is acting at the request of the spy agency to make sure that the reports will never be made public through Freedom of Information Act requests. And the CIA, in Obama’s prescient words, usually gets what it wants.
Yochi Dreazen (@yochidreazen) is managing editor, news, at Foreign Policy and author of The Invisible Front. Seán D. Naylor (@SeanDNaylor) is Foreign Policy’s intelligence and counterterrorism senior staff writer and author of the forthcoming book Relentless Strike.