CIA Director Mike Pompeo said, “It’s a matter of clearing out things that get in officers’ way.”

CIA Director Mike Pompeo said, “It’s a matter of clearing out things that get in officers’ way.” Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

CIA Director Vows to Slash Bureaucratic 'Vines,' Lauds Republican Predecessors

Pompeo wants fewer advance reviews of operations, quicker in-the-field decision making.

Citing inspiration from his Republican predecessors, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that his agency needs to “remove bureaucratic barriers” that prevent operations officers from making quick decisions in an era when national security threats require intelligence agencies to be nimble and agile.

“Our adversaries don’t spend a lot of time on process—instead of talking, they go ahead and do it,” Pompeo said at a conference on  “CIA Ethos and Professional of Intelligence” co-sponsored by the agency and The George Washington University.

“The size and complexity of our government, operating in a democracy, along with the need to coordinate efforts across organizational lines, make it hard for us to move as quickly as we’d like,” said the former congressman from Kansas who served on the House Intelligence Committee. That doesn’t mean going outside the law or “reckless freelancing,” he said. But the CIA workforce—which he called “a national treasure” of “hard men and women working in hard places”—does not need “redundant reviews” of action plans once conceived.  

Describing an officer gathering vital intelligence “on the gritty streets of a foreign capital in which the adversary moves at lightning speed,” Pompeo noted that if the officer hesitates, “his window will slam shut.”

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in just 15 days the CIA had “boots on the ground in Northeast Afghanistan with a crate of weapons and a suitcase full of cash,” Pompeo said. Quoting Reagan-era CIA Director William Casey, Pompeo said the agency’s World War II predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, “did not wait six months for a feasibility study to prove that an idea could work. They gambled it might work and did it.”

A process that allows for too many reviews is designed to reduce risk, but reviews that don’t add value “add their own risk,” Pompeo said. “It’s not that people try to gum up the works, but red tape just seems to happen.”

Speed and agility at CIA are “ingrained in who we are, in our DNA,” Pompeo said. “It’s a matter of clearing out things that get in officers’ way.” That means “reducing the number of people who have to sign off,” bypassing people who are “not adding value” or are “dead weight.” In the end, Pompeo said, the resulting process can be “faster and more rigorous at the same time.”

Agility also means curbing bureaucracy, the director added. Porter Goss, another Republican Congressman who became CIA Director under the George W. Bush administration, called the bureaucracy “the Virginia creeper,” Pompeo said. “He and others did admirable work cut back the vines, and I will too.”

Under the Trump administration, the CIA is encouraging officers to “push things to the lowest level,” so that decisions are made by the officers “closest at hand. People in bases call the shots to the maximum extent possible.” That means sending more employees “out in the field, where our adversaries are training—it’s the heart of the fight,” Pompeo said, and where “we’re more likely to keep America safe and more quickly crush adversaries.”

Pompeo, who said he had to leave the conference to go to the White House to personally give President Trump his daily briefing, said his main job is to ensure that CIA workforce has the “resources and tools to take action” in operations analysis, in science and technology, and in the digital realm. But “we will not be able to meet the needs of national security if speed and agility are allowed to wither through neglect,” he said.