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Reforming Intelligence vs.Intelligent Reforms

The intense behind the scenes lobbying on behalf of prospective candidates to replace General David Petraeus as Director of the CIA and the ongoing furor over Ambassador Rice’s “talking points” on Benghazi, have spilled over into op-eds quietly urging that the vacancy be used as an opportunity for reforms of the IC and CIA. This is not unexpected – the churn of ” IC reform” tends to be cyclical, free of institutional or historical memory and useful for distracting the media from genuine problems – but it is also true that the situation could bear improvement.

One of the smarter observations was by former star analyst Nada Bakos in Foreign Policy:

…..In light of this, what should the DNI’s role be in the intelligence community, if not disseminating a coordinated intelligence product? The CEO of a company is typically the one planning strategy, interfacing with board members, stockholders, and consumers. A CEO doesn’t typically write the chief financial officer’s year-end summary or the marketing director’s strategy — instead, he views both products from 25,000 feet to ensure the company is on steady footing. The DNI should have a similar role: rather than replicating work, it should focus on reviewing the source material from the various agencies and collaborating to ensure all of the information has been reviewed. In the case of the Benghazi talking points, the intelligence community all had a role in editing the talking points once passed from the CIA. Other points of view make sense, but in the immediate aftermath of something like Benghazi, the arrival of new (and possibly conflicting information) is likely to confuse, not improve, the product. It is best to leave the dissemination, in the immediate aftermath, in the hands of the agency that owns the source of the information and is in the business of disseminating intel products — in this case the CIA.

As with the recent and somewhat ironic leaking that the Pentagon is going to overrun the Earth with hordes of DIA covert agents [i.e. 90% of new money and personnel will probably feed the CONUS based DIA bureaucracy as a budget protection strategy] when an agency or entity can get political authorities to grant them incursions into another bureaucracy’s turf, it is because that bureaucracy has ceased doing it’s job so long ago everyone has just accepted that it will never change.

The Bakos piece contrasts well with the politicized bullshittery being offered in The New York Times. Here are some of my favorite bits of harmful nonsense:

….The United States has over 280 diplomatic posts worldwide. They are working on drug interdiction, arms control negotiations, border security, counterterrorism, access to energy and trade, implementing sanctions, fair trade and the like. Intelligence helps diplomats recognize everything from cheating on agreements to social unrest and surprise attack. And it helps them make decisions that lower the risks and consequences of war.

The new director should rededicate the C.I.A. to supporting these diplomatic operations.

Right. Each ambassador should get to play amateur Station Chief and fritter away extremely scarce intel resources on pet projects because, you know, the State Department has done such an awesome job on it’s own core missions the past decade or so, and….uh…wait….

….The best way to ensure the intelligence process can both produce the best analysis possible, free from political and policy influence, and that covert operations are smart and legal is to ensure the director is an independent actor not subject to political pressure. Making the job a 10-year appointment, which will cross the lines of elections, offers a way to reduce the risk of politicization.

Shorter Bruce Reidel: The DCIA should be able to delay or refuse the President’s order to do covert ops so the US will do far fewer of them and in maximum risk-averse fashion.

No.

You de-politicize the DCIA by not having new presidents fire old DCIAs because they were appointed by an administration from the other party, a practice begun not by Ronald Reagan as Bruce Reidel mistakenly believes, but by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The idea that the DCIA who is expected to oversee the most sensitive covert missions (i.e. those intended to have strategic or political effects) should be “independent” of the President is some form of really poor Constitutional theorizing. What happens when an “independent” DCIA launches covert ops *against* the wishes of a President?

Here are a few ideas that would be useful to keep in mind, if “reform” of the IC and CIA is actually desired and isn’t merely a stalking horse for smuggling in a different set of  foreign policy preferences unsupported by the wider American public (which I suspect much of the recent noise is):

It isn’t a choice between a “Militarized” CIA and a CIA that does HUMINT collection:

The CIA is supposed to do both covert action and intel collection and always did. Period. The true anomaly is the comatose period after the Church-Pike Hearings bloodied the CIA on Capitol Hill and created a deeply risk-averse generation of CIA managers, who, it must be said, did not exactly bend over backwards in the 1990′s to unleash a legion of deep cover operatives and agents of influence. The “militarized CIA” meme is utter B.S. from folks who dislike armed drones and kinetic tactics and lost that policy argument two years ago.

Drones and nefarious celebrity generals are not what prevents the CIA from more robust intel collection effort – only CIA management prevents better HUMINT collection by not prioritizing it and increasing the number of CIA personnel in overseas postings.

The Director of the CIA, alone or in combination with the DNI, is not the solution:

What is required is an engaged and active Chief Executive willing to spend time and political capital making the IC work for his administration the way it should and the way he needs. This may mean firing the recalcitrant, the resistant and the risk-averse and taking heat from The Washington Post and The New York Times when their favorite “senior official” sources start screaming bloody murder on background to undermine their DCIA and DNI.

Top talent in the DCIA chair, one with real gravitas on the Hill if possible, will be important but that person will still need the full backing of the President and key members of Congress or nothing will change.

“Clandestinity” and Strategic intel are more important than “Reportage”:

Senior officials in any administration like to get IC  briefs that edge out the media on breaking events and bring them details they can’t find in their own, usually very extensive, personal networks or from the bureaucracies and agency experts they themselves oversee.  The CIA in particular has catered to this demand as, it must be said, they are obligated to do.

The problem is that in economic terms, the marginal value of “secret” information over what information is available in the open media in an emerging crisis is not going to be very great unless the CIA has made substantial investments in clandestine networks in the crisis area over a period of years or decades to acquire “strategic” intel, or at least a formidable position to uncover some.

Pouring ever greater resources into near real time “reportage” and being a slightly spooky version of CNN makes such long-term, clandestine investments by the CIA less likely, less deep and less influential in shaping emerging events. Much like having a .357 magnum when someone is crawling through your bedroom window at 3 am, when a crisis erupts overseas, America either has a robust clandestine network on location or it does not.

Congress has a key role and usually abdicates it in favor of grandstanding or rearranging deck chairs:

The IC will work better with consistently active oversight done with a minimum of partisan rancor and an avoidance of any new legislation that features a new (and usually more complex) org chart. It’s important -sometimes delicate operations and lives depend on our politicians behaving and speaking with discretion. If there are important objectives for national security for the IC to accomplish, nothing sends that message better than the administration and key members of the intelligence committees acting in concert to make a policy succeed.

I’m not holding my breath on that last one.

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8 Responses to “Reforming Intelligence vs.Intelligent Reforms”

  1. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Your last sentence comes as a relief! I’m counting on you to ask me about The Johnstown Flood in 2022!
    .
    The IC should consider themselves in good company, as no one in DC is held accountable, and adults seem to be an endangered species. 

  2. Madhu Says:

    @ J. Scott – holding people accountable requires intellectually fair and methodical work year after year after year. Why do that when the watchers of the Washington Consensus – brave pundits and journalistic souls! – are easily distracted by day-to-day “he said/she said” and bean counting between parties? Party 1 is up today! No, wait, Party 2 is up today! Actually read bills and follow their implementation on the ground in detailed fashion for years on end? Nope, sorry. Too much work.
    .
    On this theme, what is all the hysterical male wonk tweeting at Small Wars Journal over the UN Disabled Treaty? As someone with multiple sclerosis, my interest was peaked but no one links to the specific treaty or discusses its various articles and the potential pitfalls versus positives. It’s just point-scoring and drama. 
    .
    Signed,
    .
    Madhu (as charming and sweet as ever….that’s sarcasm for the folks reading. But seriously, is anyone outside, like,  the Sunlight Foundation willing to do that kind of work?)

  3. Madhu Says:

    I went to the UN Treaty page (untreaty-dot-org or something but I’m still not enlightened. Lots of people ratifiying the convention in 2006 have all kinds of stipulations and reservations and “we won’t do that” on this article, or that article.
    .
    Oh, yeah, the subject of the post. Not a clue, dear friends. The acronym-rich world of DC intelligence defeats me. What, are there like a hundred different organizations? 

  4. Madhu Says:

    “Hysterical male – or female – wonk tweeting” would be an awesome site, not wordpress or blogger, but something snazzy like tumblr. 
    .
    Because I am such a horrible person, I would be exactly the kind of blogger that would save posts and tweets with which to embarrass the too-sure-of-themselves wonks years later. But I’m not going to do that. My patience for this world is slowly but surely ebbing. I can’t quite quit you people yet, but I’m close. Honest. This time, I’m really really close….
    .
    :) 

  5. Madhu Says:

    Oh, wait, “patience for this world” sounds much too dire. Amend that to “patience for the DC Consensus World and its assorted hangers-on.”
    .
    Wow, I haven’t multi-commented in crazed commenter fashion in ages. Feels good. 

  6. seydlitz89 Says:

    “Intelligence Reform” used to be a real hot-button issue with me.  Not anymore, with all the other problems we are facing . . . but I’ll give you my two bits anyway.
    .
    I served in US military intelligence in Berlin during the last decade of the Cold War, as some of ya’ll know.  During the last years I was an overt Humint collection operations officer.  Because it was overt we worked with a lot of other US and allied foreign intelligence services. 
    .
    We have experienced since that time a couple of “let’s reform our intelligence services” waves, but inevitably those who honcho the reforms were part of the preceding problems and of course see it in their interests to remain on top and sweep the garbage under the rug.  An example of what I’m talking about was what could have been learned about the effectiveness of US clandestine/covert Humint operations during the Cold War.  There was plenty of former East Block documentary evidence to go through (both audio and video) of actually how clueless we were at times, including our own captured spies to debrief, but did any of that see the light of day?  Since the Soviets/WP agencies knew, how could any of it still be considered classified?  It wasn’t, but it was highly embarrassing especially for those same folks who were in charge of the “reforms” . . . This is also why we never seriously consider what other foreign intelligence services do well and why . . . 
    .
    Then there was Dick Cheney’s big idea after the first Gulf War that we didn’t really need much of a Humint capability anymore.  It could all be done with high-tech ease-dropping, so what do we need all these linguists/interrogators for?  Most of them fluent in what were in 1992, the “wrong languages” anyway?  Almost overnight we went from being a valuable asset to being a “problem” to be got rid of.  I remember a meeting in Berlin with an Army three-star where we were told, “for every three ops you get rid of, you can hire one”.  He didn’t seem to realize the status of the audience he was addressing, we were ops, not managers, that is all in the “three” category, the “one’s” having not yet been hired.  In that short-sighted way we lost an entire generation of intelligence professionals, the same ones who had weathered the sea change in Humint collection during the late ’80s-early ’90s and had learned valuable experience from it – I know because I was one of them.  Since the Army had the largest cohort, this obviously effected all the other intelligence services down the line, since many start in the Army and then go to other services once they have experience.  I don’t think US Humint collection has ever really got over that particular trauma . . .   

  7. Saturday Linkage » Duck of Minerva Says:

    [...] Safranski discusses intelligence [...]

  8. zen Says:

    Hi Seydlitz,
    .
     “ Since the Soviets/WP agencies knew, how could any of it still be considered classified?  It wasn’t, but it was highly embarrassing especially for those same folks who were in charge of the “reforms” . . . This is also why we never seriously consider what other foreign intelligence services do well and why . . . ‘
    .
     The USG national security complex in all of it’s myriad mil-IC-diplo manifestations does not seem to love any form of critical self-examination, in-house historical analysis, red teaming, cost to benefit analysis, systems analysis, IG reports, OMB/CBO/CRO analysis or internal dissent from the “party line”. They cannot avoid scrutiny from Presidential Commissions or a truly motivated Congressional committee but they frequently can outwait, mislead and misdirect them down blind alleys that get lots of political attention but are dead ends. There’s a studied lack of curiosity about their own performance or desire for lessons learned, perhaps a fear that hard data could crimp future political flexibility.
    .
    ” 
    In that short-sighted way we lost an entire generation of intelligence professionals, the same ones who had weathered the sea change in Humint collection during the late ’80s-early ’90s and had learned valuable experience from it – I know because I was one of them.  Since the Army had the largest cohort, this obviously effected all the other intelligence services down the line, since many start in the Army and then go to other services once they have experience.  I don’t think US Humint collection has ever really got over that particular trauma . . “
    .
    I cannot speak from experience as you can, but it fits with what I have heard from others with your background and have read. One good friend who was out of the Army was suddenly wanted back some years later because his varied language skills included some Serbo-Croat, but he was beyond forcible recall by then and life had moved on (he was also, IMHO, a rare star talent, who had been encouraged to walk out the door). There’s a kind of managerial mentality that can appear in any field that intuitively distrusts capable or expert subordinates because it disproves their operative theory that the “doers” are basically interchangeable cogs with limited and inconsequential differences who cannot be trusted to accomplish anything without micromanagement and whose input must be discounted except in extremis. 


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