A Dangerous CIA ‘Reform’

The CIA’s original purpose was to coordinate intelligence and provide unbiased analyses to U.S. presidents to avert another Pearl Harbor, but politicians and operatives have corrupted the process, a problem that CIA Director Brennan would make worse, writes ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman.

By Melvin A. Goodman

CIA Director John Brennan is promoting a reorganization scheme at the Central Intelligence Agency that will make it more likely that intelligence analysis will be politicized to support the interests of the White House and senior policymakers.

The organizational change that he favors would abolish the directorates of intelligence and operations, which were designed to maintain a bureaucratic wall between intelligence analysis and clandestine actions, in order to create regional and functional “centers” that would place analysts and operatives side-by-side. There is no doubt that such centers would do great harm to the production of strategic intelligence and would increase the likelihood of politicizing all intelligence production.

CIA Director John Brennan addresses officials at the Agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia. (Photo credit: CIA)

CIA Director John Brennan addresses officials at the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. (Photo credit: CIA)

The CIA already relies heavily on so-called fusion centers, such as the Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) and the Counter Intelligence Center (CIC), which combine intelligence analysts and clandestine operatives. These centers were responsible for the operational failures in 2009 that allowed a Nigerian terrorist to board a commercial airline flight to the United States and enabled a Jordanian suicide bomber, a double agent, to enter (and blow up) the most sensitive CIA base in Afghanistan.

More recently, the CTC contributed to the intelligence failure regarding the danger and the lethality of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which has contributed to the policy nightmare in the Middle East that just claimed a major bureaucratic victim, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. And let’s not forget the role of the CTC regarding the 9/11 intelligence failure, the most important intelligence setback since Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier.

The analysts in these centers do serve an important purpose as “targeting analysts,” which allows them to concentrate on identifying targets for drone attacks in the case of the CTC or for counter-intelligence operations in the case of the CIC. This is very tedious and parochial work, but very different from the kind of academic and analytical work needed to produce trenchant analysis on long-term geopolitical concerns regarding Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

There is already too much insularity in these regional offices, which do not take full advantage of outside experts, and combining analysts and operatives will lead to greater parochialism.

The “centers” that currently exist have become more or less service centers for policymakers, answering specific questions and preparing requested briefings, but not distinguished for exploring new ideas or for sponsoring competitive analysis. They often justify themselves by citing the numbers of briefings given to policymakers or staffers, with an emphasis on quantitative evaluation and rarely on qualitative assessment or lessons learned.

This is similar to the evaluation that takes place in the National Clandestine Service (formerly the directorate of operations) that grades its operatives on the number of recruitments rather than the usefulness of the intelligence that is elicited from these recruits.

Clandestine operatives are deeply involved in policy; they rely on secrecy and hierarchy and reluctantly share information on a strict need-to-know basis. Intelligence analysts must have no policy axes to grind; their credibility rests on that fact. Serious intelligence failures, such as the lack of warning about the decline of the Soviet Union or the phony assessments of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, occurred when policy advocacy hampered the flow of intelligence information.

CIA directors and deputy directors such as William Casey and Robert Gates were involved in the Soviet failure; George Tenet and John McLaughlin played key roles in preparing the phony intelligence case for going to war against Iraq. We will be paying for these cases of politicized intelligence for a long time.

One of the most important factors in the decline of the CIA over the past 30 years has been the inability to produce relevant strategic intelligence and to prepare timely national intelligence estimates. The intelligence from the fusion centers concentrates on tactical warning, but does a poor job of producing intelligence that explains the “why” and “wherefore” of geopolitical events.

There is already too much “opportunity analysis” at the CIA, which finds analysts pointing out possible lines of action for policymakers based on intelligence information.  This kind of analysis clearly breaches the firewall between intelligence and policy that Casey and Gates ignored in the 1980s and Tenet and McLaughlin exploited more recently.

There are many examples of the misuse of clandestine collection to suit policy interests and ignore intelligence requirements. In Central and South America, clandestine operatives contributed to the cover-up of human rights abuses to satisfy the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

In Southwest Asia, operatives often censored or simply ignored reporting on strategic weaponry in Pakistan to satisfy the Nixon administration in the 1970s and the Reagan administration in the 1980s. President Nixon wanted to protect Pakistan as a conduit for conducting secret diplomacy with China; President Reagan wanted to protect Pakistan as a conduit for arms shipments to the mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Previous CIA failures led to reform measures, but this has not been so in more recent times. The CIA corruption of the 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War led to the creation of the congressional oversight committees as well as a congressional review function for covert action. The Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s led to the creation of a statutory or “independent” Inspector General (IG) at the CIA, appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate.

There have been no recent reform efforts at the CIA despite the intelligence failures of 9/11 and Iraqi WMD as well as the operational degradation of torture and abuse, extraordinary renditions, and erroneous detentions. In fact, the Obama administration and then CIA Director Leon Panetta combined several years ago to weaken the office of the Inspector General, even the statutory IG himself.

CIA Director Brennan, who is already part of a constitutional crisis by lying to the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee and blocking a Senate report on torture and abuse, is now lobbying for a “reform” that will do even more harm to the CIA’s original mission to produce strategic intelligence.

Melvin A. Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers) and the forthcoming The Path of Dissent: A Whistleblower at the CIA (City Lights Publishers).

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5 comments for “A Dangerous CIA ‘Reform’

  1. December 9, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    The mission of the CIA was originally intelligence gathering, but early in the 1950’s, Trickey Dickey created the 5412 Committee, which turned the CIA into “Assassinations Inc.”
    Every President, including LBJ, Jimmy Peanut, Slick Willie, has used the CIA, for whatever agenda, they had in mind.
    You can not blame the Agency, for following the orders of the President.

  2. elmerfudzie
    November 30, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    In my opinion, the Western Occident citizenry, including the USA, approves of covert operations but not to the extent of politically or financially manipulating indigenous peoples, using IMF funds instead of conquistadors but having the same result. John Perkins detailed this (financial-ized capital) promoting third world domination in his book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The invisible and controlling hand reached into first world countries as well but through political assassinations. I am referring to the European Gladio Program, such as murdering Alfred Herrhausen, Aldo Moro, and inclusive in this, in our own country, the Kennedy Brothers, Senator Paul Wellstone and many others. Those dangling chads following elections, (Bush Junior’s rise to the presidency) could not have been accomplished without assistance by domestic Intel forces (deep state) working in cooperation with the abysmally unjust Supreme Court-oxymoron?The public does not approve of black budgets that resemble corporate embezzling deliberately doctoring the Agency books, re-circulating illegal narcotic distribution monies from one department or government agency into another until the origin and end use cannot be uncovered or traced i.e. the Mena Arkensas narcotics distribution network, or Contra Affair activities. The Intel community needs to be accountable, like everyone else, to Congress, and NOT to closed door select sub-committees. They cannot continue to promote a domestic, militarized policing culture (in reality a counter culture) that encourages tear gassing little old ladies protesting in the town square or advocate frisking of US war veterans, forcing them to dismantle artificial limbs at screening stations, meanwhile non-citizen Arab sheiks ( from allied countries) require no screening what so ever. . I now apply the old Hollywood hero tool (pardon, Elstree Studios, England). Thru the altruistic actions of MI-6 George Smiley (retired), the real bastard is compromised, for example, he’s a top level KGB’er, or he’s a three piece suit, broker-Baron, deliberately manipulating Gold prices on the COMEX in some manner that jeopardizes the national interest or he’s an ex-CBW specialist from the former CCCP military labs who entered the country with false passport, or a nuclear scientist, now a mental case, in possession of a stash of pure plutonium and he wants to blend it into the food chain. The Intel folks have one and only one function, to catch the big time psycho’s and real terrorists, this narrow and exclusive job description is quite separate from policing the usual organized mob stuff like blackmailing, shake downs, human trafficking, disruptive hacking (leave it up to Norton and the FBI), pimping rings, moving stolen cars around the globe and so on…In other words, reserve or limit their field operatives to the sort of criminality that challenges the essence, the Bald Eagle, only those persons or entities to be a known and absolute threat to national peace and security.

  3. John
    November 28, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks for this illumination. Indeed the divisions seem to have often represented distinct goals and views, and their separation may have protected unpopular opinion, and essential constraint upon executive groupthink. It would be interesting to hear any sensible rationale for the combination, but it looks bad indeed.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    November 28, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    I can’t help but think of that joke about the traveling salesman driving a country road through Appalachia on his way to Pittsburgh, and he gets lost. He sees some hayseed fixing a fence, and stops to ask directions. Clem takes off his straw hat, scratches his head, and says, “Well, come to think of it, son, you just can’t get there from here”.

    Boys and girls, it’s about time the CIA oversight committee got a geography lesson. Now pay attention, especially you, Diane – no talking during class, and quit passing notes to your BFF Lindsay – she’s having enough trouble with reading comprehension. Open your books to page 322 and look at the map. OK boys and girls, here’s todays assignment, and you can all work together. First, I want you to make a list of all three countries from which you could drive 300 shiny, white Toyota pickup trucks directly across the desert crossing ONLY ONE border, and end up in Iraq. Then, I want you to make the same list for Syria. But here’s a hint: you can’t start from Iran, because they’ve been a bad, bad country and they don’t have any Toyota pickup trucks to donate. They have sanctions, which is like sitting in the Principal’s Office when you misbehave.

    OK, times up! Everybody who got Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for both countries – raise your hands. Hmm. Not many of you, I see. Well, let’s move on to the next exercise. This is a tricky one, because it involves natural resources. You want to know if 300 shiny, white Toyota pickup trucks drive across your stretch of the desert. You only have twenty million dollars in your local Fusion Center budget finances for surveillance. Do you: A) Spend $50,000 dollars to hire some Arabs on camels with binoculars who will see the dust cloud for 100 miles, or B) Spend your entire budget on elaborate high tech surveillance mechanisms in the hope that somehow, those 300 Toyota pickup trucks will not slip past your defenses? Remember, the Principal has stocks in surveillance equipment – pay attention, Diane.

    Now, for a history lesson. During the “Six Day War”, there was great consternation on the part of our concerned President, Lyndon Johnson. He worried that the Arabs might not be defeated quickly, because those bad, bad Russians might get involved. But, the trusty CIA jumped in to make sure Arab troop movements were recorded by day with photoreconnaissance missions, and by night with infrared reconnaissance missions, and not a single Arab could even sneak behind a sand dune to use the lavatory. In the 47 years since then, something has changed. For ten bonus points, what is different today? Your choices are A) Today’s Toyota trucks have “stealth” capability B) Due to cheap labor, Toyota opened a factory in Iraq C) The Caliph actually has Aladdin’s lamp, and he asked the Genie for 300 white Toyota pickup trucks D) The CIA knew about the 300 Toyota pickup trucks all along, but waited till they reached their destination so they could fight them “over there” instead of “over here”.

    Now, boys and girls, when you go home tonight, it’s OK to ask your constituents for help on these questions. Tomorrow, I want you all to tell me what they think about spending $600,000,000,000 of their money to keep track of pickup trucks in a desert 5,000 miles away. Diane, stop whispering to Lindsay. She doesn’t know any of the answers.

  5. silentwitness
    November 28, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Is this not just another example of governments avoiding unwelcome facts that might affect idealogical policy by converting science & technology to marketing & sales?
    A matrix organization might work here with the regional presence making up for the long touted weakness of feet on the ground and a central more expert group on various specialties? But that needs positive people co-operating together, which sounds opposite to the fundamental characteristics of their profession.

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