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Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye had an interesting post today “Understanding the problem” regarding an op-ed by former Reagan administration Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. As is usual, I find myself in agreement with Dave on the majority of his points, however, on one part of Dave’s post I must register a dissent:

“I have always found the idea that you can reform a bureaucracy farfetched. You can eliminate a bureacracy, navigate around it, or put another layer in; you can’t reform a bureaucracy.

I’d also like to point out what the “MI” in MI-5 stands for: military intelligence. I don’t believe that the CIA has the attitude, culture, or, frankly, the ability to execute its nominal mission. Consequently, I think that the CIA should be abolished and its functions placed completely under the Pentagon (as it used to be”

While Dave’s criticisms regarding the recent performance of the CIA and the difficulty of reforming a bureaucracy may be on target, the suggestion of dropping the CIA’s statutory functions into the lap of the Pentagon is a really, really, bad idea. That the CIA has failed to carry out a number of its major functions with effiiency does not mean that the military is well suited to execute them in Langely’s stead. In actuality, the reverse may be true; the historical record of military intelligence is a narrow and parochial one. And not just in the case of the United States either.

Intelligence activities have a number of facets, including:

Clandestine espionage

“Overt” espionage under diplomatic cover

Open source intelligence collection

Covert operations (sabotage, assassination, coups)

Strategic Influence



The military, for demographic reasons as well as those of institutional culture or focus, is not the ideal candidate for all of these missions. A few of them might be bettter placed in the hands of State Department personnel than in those of, say, the Marines. Even in the case of covert operations of a paramilitary nature that the military is better equipped to handle than is the CIA, it is useful in certain situations for diplomatic and legal reasons for these actions to be carried out under the aegis of the CIA instead of the United States military. Aside from issues of the UCMJ, what might otherwise be an act of war under international law, if performed by a member of SOCOM or the DIA, becomes plausibly deniable if done by a deep cover member of the CIA’s Special Activities Staff. Or better yet, a contract employee.

Nor am I, for reasons of bureaucratic checks and balance, eager to place all of America’s foreign intelligence in the hands of a single member of the Cabinet. That is simply asking for trouble down the road. Bureaucratic competition is an inefficient way to allocate resources but it provides at least minimal incentives not to screw up too badly. And it functions as a comparative check on the productivity and reliability of an intelligence agency as well.

The CIA may well be resistant to reform but I’m not ready to junk the idea of a civilian intelligence agency just yet.

9 Responses to “”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    I understand your concerns, Mark. I think that your point about “plausible deniability” is probably unlikely: can you think of any actual instance in which what otherwise would have been considered an act of war was defused by virtue of its actor not having been a member of the military? I mean with respect to the United States?

    If I were to distill my concerns about the CIA into a single sentence, it would be that I’m concerned about the culture of elitism in the CIA which, while also present in the military, is tempered there by the sense of honor inculcated as part of the group culture.

    And it’s not a recent failure, Mark. It dates from the earliest days of the agency. They always overstated Soviet capabilities. And failed to recognize the Soviet penetration of so many Third World governments.

  2. Sonny Says:


    I mostly agree with you, however, I am interested to see your take on what demographic or institutional cultural reasons would prevent a military unit or organization to conduct counterintel, analysis, or clandestine ops at least at the tactical and operational levels? Personally, I would not want to see your typical State Dept “unit” and “troops” running around in some of the places that we have to operate. Sometimes is a matter of survivability.

  3. purpleslog Says:

    The “MI” is from its historical origins. The Security Service is the proper name for MI5. It is not part of the military. The Security Service is a sort of a Domestic Security and Intelligence Service (something the US should have instead of an FBI National Security branch that is oriented toward arrests and making cases). It works organizational under the Home Office and the Home Secretary (sort of a mashup of the US Justice Department and Homeland Security Department).

    MI6 is really what the author meant. The Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) is the CIA-ish group. For it too, the “MI” is from its historical origins, it is not part of the military. It is overseen by the Joint Intelligence Committee. The JIC is not part of the military, but it does include among its members the head of defense/military intelligence and the minister of defense (they might just send their reps or deputies).

    The Defense/Military intelligence group is the Defense Intelligence Staff (sort of like the US DIA).

  4. mark Says:

    Hi Dave,

    I can think of a number of occasions where having uniformed members of the military would have been more provocative than civilians, such as in Berlin during the Cold War where a Four Power agreement was in effect. It is a nominal distinction, I agree but it can provide one less excuse to ramp up a crisis.

    The CIA culture, in terms of recalcitrance and elitism, is a serious problem – so is the military tendency to be a little too gung ho and eager to please. Military intel during the Vietnam War as it related to analytical advice or reports to civilian policy makers was complete crap. The CIA, which ran against the grain of currying favor, was far more accurate in its assessments of the situation in South Vietnam.

    You need a comparison because of the inherent institutional biases. I would never suggest that military intel be subcontracted out to a civilian agency because they could not be relied upon to provide the military with the intel it required.

    Hi Sonny,

    Not that the military can’t do some of these things, just that they can’t do all of them. Certainly, the tactical and operational levels are where they would excel.

    OTOH, posing as a businessman or visiting professor or journalist to recruit outside the military-diplomatic circles frequented by the DIA would be harder to pull off. There are only so many skill-sets a junior grade officer has at their average age, and most of them, for professional reasons, are rather specialized.

    Analysis too, tends -and this appropriate – to be specialized toward military concerns. Cultural intelligence is a weakness in the IC as a whole but less so in the CIA or State.

    Not either-or here but ” both and then some” as an outcome.

  5. mark Says:

    Gracias Purpleslog !

  6. The Lounsbury Says:

    I find this convo queer.

    Insofar as I have been good friends with real Agency people, US and MI5, I also find the … characterisations of the culture to be rather queer, even academic, and not as a compliment.

    As to what non-military agents can do, versus military unit – military stick out like bloody sore thumbs mate. Bloody sore thumbs.

    But that aside, it rather strikes me that much of the whinging on about US intelligence has to do with things done for political reasons in Washington, and your civilian intel service has become among certain ideological circles, the scapegoat.

    Very convenient, but has fuck all to do with your real problems.

    But you can whank on about “elitism” all you want. Self delusion is often fun.

  7. Sonny Says:


    You are right. The military can’t don everything especially will our requirements for tactical intel coming from our current ops in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am more in favor of the CIA conducting the types of operations that you mention than the State Department. After all the CIA is an intelligence agency, Duh! and the State Dept. only conducts intel collection and analysis as a peripheral activity. It seems like despite all the commisions calling for intel reform at the CIA, there’s still a lot of work to do.

  8. phil Says:

    “Very convenient, but has fuck all to do with your real problems.”

    Well, “The Lounsbury”, don’t keep us in suspense, tell us what our real problems really are.

    This of course will never be accepted, but I would break up the CIA. We should split off R&A into an independant organization reporting directly to the DNI. Then resurrect the name Office of Strategic Services and assign to it the clandestine espionage, paramilitary, covert ops-type stuff and base them down near Ft Bragg. It would be an independent organization reporting to the DNI, but free of the decades long bureaucratic inertia that is inevitable from any long-standing organization. And free to work with SOCOM while being indepentent and civilian. The operations parts of intelligence needs to be broken up, renamed, reorganized in order to capture the swashbuckling, creative, daring spirit that should be motivating them.

  9. Kobayashi Maru Says:

    One dangerous thing about most bureaucracies is that they are adept at creating the appearance of reform in order to assuage enough critics to avoid their wholesale dissolution. Another dangerous thing about them is that they tend to attract – almost by definition – empire-builders. While putting the CIA under military control has its drawbacks, it does have advantage of clarity, i.e., about whose agenda is being pursued. What worries me about today’s CIA is that it’s not clear who’s pulling the strings except that those people have a liberal, anti-administration bias. Better to have the power-holders out in the light and subject to scrutiny than to leave it to the opaque Ouija board dynamics of unidentified internal political forces within the agency.

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