Nearly seven months ago, CIA Director John Brennan publicly unveiled his plan to significantly rethink the organization of his agency and how it would conduct its business. In my previous columns, I have tried to link strategy, law and history; this linkage lies at the heart of the proposed CIA reforms.
The CIA was created in 1947, nearly six years after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The chief reason given for its formation was to prevent another surprise attack against the United States, and for 60 years it succeeded. And yet, on Sept. 11, 2001 — a date that might also be said to „live in infamy” — another surprise attack hit the United States, resulting in a greater loss of life than the attack at Pearl Harbor. Despite an annual budget totaling twice the defense outlays of Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Libya combined — and roughly equal to the entire British defense budget — the U.S. intelligence community was unable to thwart or even give sufficient warning of the attack.
Nevertheless, the failure to prevent the atrocities of 9/11 was not the most significant intelligence failure of the new millennium. In October 2002, the National Intelligence Council produced a National Intelligence Estimate that said Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. (The National Intelligence Estimate is the U.S. intelligence community’s most authoritative intelligence assessment, drawn from all community sources and representing the conclusions of the community as a whole.) But according to the subsequent work of the Iraq Survey Group, this assessment was almost entirely premature. The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate also said that Iraq’s biological weapons capability had grown more advanced than it had been before the Gulf War, and that Baghdad possessed mobile biological weapons labs. This, too, was wrong. The report further concluded that Iraq had resumed its production of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin and VX, and had accumulated stockpiles of these weapons amounting to between 100 and 500 metric tons. These claims were also wrong. Finally, the intelligence estimate said that Iraq had obtained unmanned aerial vehicles intended for the delivery of biological weapons, also an erroneous conclusion.
In short, the intelligence community’s assessments of Iraq were riddled with errors, and its reputation has yet to fully recover. The role the intelligence community played in persuading the public of the necessity of going to war has done historic damage to the country’s trust in subsequent claims for intervention, and indeed, to the credibility of executive action more generally. The Robb-Silberman Commission charged with investigating the community’s claims regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction concluded:
„While the intelligence services of the U.K., France Germany, and Russia also thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction [in 2002], in the end it was the United States secretary of state that put American credibility on the line, making this one of the most public — and most damaging — intelligence failures in recent American history.”
The Dangers of Structural Division
At first glance, the intelligence failures of 9/11 and Iraqi WMDs appear to have little in common. The 9/11 Commission Report criticized the intelligence community for failing to share information among agencies, concluding that the lack of communication materially contributed to the wider failure to „connect the dots” — that is, to anticipate the attack and thwart it. „With each agency holding one or two pieces of the puzzle, none could see the whole picture.” The Iraq WMD failure presented a different problem. It wasn’t so much that analysts were unaware of what their counterparts in other agencies were thinking; it was rather that, with some exceptions, all of the analysts were thinking the same thing. Information that was inconsistent with the widely held thesis was discarded or, tellingly, reclassified as the result of Iraqi deception. Put simply, analysts enthusiastically connected dots that had little to do with one another or that might be better described as inkblots into a false picture.
But what the two fiascos did have in common was the fundamental structure of problem solving that existed within the CIA and throughout the intelligence community as a whole. This structure was the consequence of a particular way of understanding the collection and use of intelligence: Analysts treated these activities as a kind of proto-social science that they conducted from a detached, disinterested, scientific point of view. That understanding was then manifested in bureaucratic organization.
It is true that, as with most organizations, the intelligence community’s problem-solving structure could partly be explained by history. Figures from the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services were incorporated into the newly formed Directorate of Operations, bringing with them the experience of and capabilities to conduct covert action; the bureaucratic empire building of J. Edgar Hoover kept the CIA on a tight leash whenever the FBI’s interest were implicated; and so on. But the history itself could also be explained by the ideas it represented, for that’s what history often is: Institutions and individuals working out the ideas they come to take for granted. In the intelligence community, these ideas were manifested in the form of several antinomies:
- The division between the public and private sectors.
- The separation between the domestic and the international.
- The different rules we apply to law enforcement and intelligence operations.
- The different reliance we place on secret and open sources.
- The distinction between intelligence collection and analysis.
- The different roles of the intelligence producer and consumer.
And although these antinomies enabled the U.S. intelligence services to successfully navigate the challenges of the Cold War, they also directly led to the failures of 9/11 and Iraq.
A New Organization for a New Threat
While some critics have described the reforms announced in March as mere bureaucratic reshuffling, they are in fact an effort to overcome the difficulties imposed by these antinomies as we confront a new international reality.
The key reform is the creation of „mission centers,” each led by an assistant director, that are not linked to any particular directorate. These centers will be organized around regions, such as Africa or East Asia, and functions or threats, like counterterrorism or WMD. Indeed, it is telling that the current National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is the model for the new mission centers, because global market state terror is a phenomenon that most challenges the six sets of ideas listed above. Market state terrorists outsource their activities, merging the private and public spheres; they operate across borders, unconfined by any particular territory, blurring the lines between the domestic and the international; they commit crimes to further their political goals, often depending on criminal activity for their operations; their groups are difficult to penetrate but advertise themselves relentlessly in the media, including social media; the threat they pose requires close collaboration between intelligence producers and consumers who confront it, because typical intelligence customers can’t be relied upon to ask for information in such novel and unpredictable circumstances; and they cannot be defeated if analysts remain in the dark about the sources of their information and if collectors are not constrained to gather information that is useful to analysts.
The Directorate of Intelligence (which will be renamed the Directorate of Analysis) and the National Clandestine Service (which will revert to its old name, the Directorate for Operations) will mainly function as talent pools, recruiting and training personnel to be deployed in the mission centers. Each center will have a team of analysts and operators working side by side and responsibility for espionage, analysis and covert action within its assigned mission area.
In addition to trying to enhance collaboration and achieve greater structural coherence, another important objective of the reorganization is to create accountability through the assistant directors. Currently, there is no single person the CIA director can call upon to summarize threats, future trends and current operations in any particular area outside the NCTC and counterintelligence.
Critics’ main objections to the reform will be that the CIA is forsaking the very structures that made it successful, and there is much truth to this concern. By keeping intelligence analysis separate from collection, the United States has enhanced the professionalization of both. By keeping intelligence consumers separate from producers, we have reduced — if not entirely removed — the politicization that can corrupt both. By relying on the government to find and maintain secrets while leaving publicly available information to the academics and journalists, we have attempted to protect U.S. journalists from being arrested overseas and to prevent CIA analysts from infiltrating university journals.
In future columns, I will say more about the uses of intelligence by statesmen. For now, I simply leave you with this: These reforms are essential to a preclusive strategy for the United States. That strategy seeks to anticipate threats and preclude them from being actualized. It depends enormously on estimative intelligence and its timely use in formulating policy.