A Dangerous CIA ‘Reform’

From the Archive: Ignoring the CIA’s original purpose to coordinate intelligence and provide unbiased analyses to U.S. presidents to avert another Pearl Harbor CIA Director Brennan is pressing ahead with a plan to merge operations with analysis, a scheme that ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman panned last year.

By Melvin A. Goodman (Originally published on Nov. 28, 2014)

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 claimed a major bureaucratic victim, Defense Secretary 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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2 comments for “A Dangerous CIA ‘Reform’

  1. Joe
    March 10, 2015 at 8:11 am

    Thanks for reminding us of these essentially distinct functions of the CIA in serving understanding of foreign situations (a policymaking function) versus serving policies (an executive function). Perhaps Congress should have its own CIA; Congress should in general more directly control the executive agencies. But that would only help if the US were still a democracy, which could not be much further from the truth.

    The problem is that the US is no longer a democracy, so it does not matter which branch does what. Economic concentrations own the politicians of the executive and the legislative branches, and thereby the judicial branch. And they own the mass media and elections, the very tools needed to restore democracy.

    The failure to keep the informational functions of the CIA distinct from policy functions represents intent to suppress views discordant with policy. That is consistent with the unconstitutional executive seizure of policymaking authority from Congress since WWII, in conducting secret wars. It is no longer ironic that a Dem administration would do so, as they too have been installed by oligarchy control of mass media and elections.

    • R, Roy
      March 10, 2015 at 9:18 pm

      Joe, excellent commentary. You covered it. I would add that Mr. Goodman is still has a “good” CIA mindset. He says, “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.” What he misses is that those were not “failures” but rather played out as intended to result in the desired effect. I read the right wing documents years ago stating that Iran, Iraq and Syria would be first on the list to attack, followed by four more Middle Eastern countries. No CIA could stop that no matter how it might be organized, no matter what intelligence it related to the powers above. Plus, as far as I can see, the CIA has never been a good organization. Today the false intelligence will tell us that Iran wants a nuclear bomb even though there is not a shred of evidence that this is so; in fact Israel’s Mossad said so and yes, so did our intelligence, so you see, it doesn’t matter what intelligence is offered, it makes no difference when the goal is war and/or regime change. Ahead Russia, maybe China. Again, thank you for your good insight. You are right. We have no democracy.

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