We lack enough spies in the right places, and intelligence reform isn't producing them.
To secure America, advance intelligence about terrorists' intentions arguably is our most potent weapon. As John MacGaffin, a former senior CIA official and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, observes: "Think how different the world would be if, years ago, the CIA had only recruited two spies-one in Afghanistan right next to bin Laden, another in Iraq in charge of destruction of weapons of mass destruction."
But our arsenal is frighteningly low on the kind of spies who could pull that off. "Probably the most important thing in human intelligence is not a failure to connect dots, but having-or not having-enough dots to connect. It's about being able to recruit the right spies in the right places," MacGaffin adds. Unfortunately, the United States' capacity to collect intelligence about terrorists is startlingly weak. And many former spies and experts say the reforms intended to bolster human intelligence are falling short.
In theory, the Sept. 11 commission launched a renaissance in human intelligence collection. In the wake of its July 2004 report, observers anticipated a robust flowering of institutions and operations. New multiagency, multidisciplinary organizations such as the National Counterterrorism Center sprung up. New CIA director Porter J. Goss, who took the helm Sept. 24, 2004, vowed to quickly field hundreds of new case officers and recast the agency's spy-running and covert operations wing, the Directorate of Operations, as the National Clandestine Service. CIA human intelligence (HUMINT) already had garnered initial successes. CIA clandestine collectors reportedly were instrumental in aiding the United Nations' inquiry into the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. And relations between the CIA and other intelligence services improved.
But for many intelligence veterans, the state of HUMINT isn't comforting. They point in particular to two sad ironies: Some 9/11 commission-driven reforms such as the creation of specialized centers, have exacerbated existing problems; and any unique insight Goss might have brought to the CIA directorship from his time as an agency officer has been undermined by a destructive staff and poor leadership. "Right now the CIA has had a hemorrhaging of Directorate of Operations people leaving. From my perspective, if I'm [Director of National Intelligence John D.] Negroponte, it's grounds for firing Goss," says Marvin Ott, former deputy staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, now on the faculty at the National Defense University. "The very fact that so many people are voting with their feet tells me he and his staff are alienating the people we need most."
Former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet was largely liked and respected by the rank and file. But current and recently retired officers say Tenet's executive director, former investment banker A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, hurt human intelligence by bringing in private sector concepts such as having administrative units charge for services. Officers say the scheme slowed support for operations. "If case officers and stations don't get everything they need, or [don't] get it promptly because someone has reorganized the support system that worked for 40 years, it makes it harder to do what we do: recruit spies and steal secrets," says a retired administration directorate officer.
Tenet talked a lot about operations, but he never was entirely comfortable with the DO, observers say. "[With] much of the day-to-day operations being left to Buzzy, operations suffered," says the former chief of one of the agency's larger overseas operations. What's more, during the 1990s, the intelligence community's budget, and that of every division at the CIA, got cut. A mid-1990s exodus of Senior Intelligence Service grade officers, who retired or quit in frustration, also hurt. In Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA From Iran-Contra to 9/11 (Nation Books, 2004), Melissa Boyle Mahle cites the loss of officers.
As the operations directorate lost veteran agents and money, the CIA leadership was moving toward a new model of collection. Specialized centers focusing on subject-specific areas-terrorism, counterproliferation, environment, counternarcotics-took over as the drivers of field officers' work. While not a bad idea in theory, the approach was seriously flawed in practice, in the view of veteran field officers. A Senior Intelligence Service officer who recently quit says the centers lacked talent. "It would be one thing if you have the most knowledgeable, best and brightest experts on subject matter. But in many cases, the analysts didn't have any grounding in the subject matter, so they didn't know what they wanted. It was a disaster."
On top of that, says a recently retired division head, even before the 9/11 commission advocated it, "the operational budget was increasingly being defined by centers and not individual divisions and operations. Case officers in the field were literally being told, 'Only propose operations that you can give a budget for and that can be matched up with the centers.' These are not the things case officers have traditionally thought about, or should. Their time is supposed to be spent figuring out how to penetrate targets and steal secrets, and leave budget concerns to higher-ups. . . . I literally had to tell my officers, 'Under no circumstances should you be thinking about budget concerns.'
"I testified before the 9/11 commission several times, and every time they kept on coming back to center-oriented thinking, saying, 'Well, how about a center with something like a [commander in chief] for this and that,' " he continues. "And I said, 'We already have CINCs. They're called division chiefs and chiefs of station.' . . . When I started as a case officer . . . there [were] basically only two people between you and the director-the station chief and the division chief. Now, there's a load of center directors, special assistants, task force heads," says the former division chief, whose 9/11 commission interviews and testimony were not conducted publicly.
The situation has worsened, he adds, since reforms began. In addition to a proliferation of new centers, concessions to turf battles have created rivalries and redundancies. While there is a new National Counterterrorism Center under the authority of the director of national intelligence, the CIA still maintains its own counterterrorist center. As former CIA official John Brennan-whose last assignment in government was as interim director of NCTC-noted in a November 2005 column in The Washington Post, the intelligence community is having a difficult time "trying to figure out how to hard-wire two very dissimilar centers."
A longtime CIA officer, now retired but still on contract with the agency, puts it this way: "If you want a better HUMINT ability, you put the [administration directorate] back together so its purpose is what it always saw itself as, to serve [the operations directorate].You find a way to get the best people who know about things into the centers; you mean it when you say you want station chiefs to take risks [in recruiting spies and undertaking operations]. . . . We're at a point now where [the director] can't just say, 'More officers, more [people under nonofficial cover],' and think that's a magic bullet. There are really serious things that need to be reconsidered and discussed, like the challenges of creating effective cover platforms in the 21st century, and of how we run operations. Running off or alienating what little institutional memory is left hasn't helped." By his count, nearly 200 senior CIA personnel have left in the past year.
"We have to rethink how we do things," he says. For example, some CIA insiders have argued that all truly secret operations-those unknown to the countries in which they are taking place-should be run out of headquarters in Langley, Va., and that CIA stations should function almost exclusively with the knowledge of other countries' intelligence services. Others have called for better temporary cover mechanisms or greater flexibility in cover, not more centers. They also have contended that even after 9/11, the CIA still focuses on quantity to the detriment of quality in recruiting spies.
Many say all that's happened is a renaming and theoretical reorientation of the operations directorate without much real or philosophical change for the CIA or the rest of the intelligence community. "The National Clandestine Service should mean, in effect, that you can never say again, 'We weren't able to focus on the most important recruitments,' " says MacGaffin. "You don't necessarily need more people to do that, it's how you use them. And it's not about having people work one thing or be in one place for one to two years, but 10 to 20 years. The National Clandestine Service was intended to be the core for doing this kind of thing." How real the difference will be between what it is and what came before remains to be seen.