Ready for Reform? CIA Presses for Internal Evolution

by Kevin Truitte

The U.S. intelligence community has been rocked by intelligence leaks over the past several years. The heap of classified material released by a dissatisfied soldier, Chelsea Manning, was enormously embarrassing for the U.S. government. The revelation of a covert electronic data-monitoring program by the National Security Agency (NSA) exposed by security contractor-turned-defector Edward Snowden brought scrutiny to the information-collecting means employed by the intelligence community and to the question of whether it exceeded its authority under the U.S. Constitution. Most recently, the December 10 release of a damning seven hundred page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee pulled back the curtain on the methods of “enhanced interrogation” used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and contractors in order to extract information from suspects. Many in the shocked American public have in turn demanded greater oversight of such programs, and of the intelligence community as a whole. But the flurry of unwanted attention to past programs has drowned out a recent development in the CIA under Director John Brennan: the organization is considering undergoing “sweeping organizational changes.”

According to a November 19 article published in the Washington Post, director Brennan is considering reforming the internal workings of the CIA, remodeling a decades-old system under which the analytical Directorate of Intelligence and operational (i.e. spying) National Clandestine Service departments exist separately from one another. Brennan created an internal panel to review the current state of affairs within the agency and produce a report recommending changes. According to the article, the ultimate goal of reforms to the agency will be geared towards eliminating current separation between operational and analytical departments and replacing them with multiple “hybrid” units, focused on particular regions and security threats. The archetype for this proposed reorganization scheme is the current Counterterrorism Center (CTC) at the CIA, which, despite existing before 2001, saw its size and scope expand exponentially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The changes would realign the agency as a collection of hybrid units operating under similar structures as the current CTC.

The rationale behind such reorganization is simple. In today’s world, with fast-paced changes in conflicts and the high speed by which information travels, the operational and analytical sides need to operate closer to one another so that the information gleaned from analysis can more quickly be translated into operational plans to respond to events. From conflicts with traditional adversaries such as the Russian military intervention into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to the unexpected rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), these changes reflect the CIA director’s belief that the organization must be more flexible and reactive. By consolidating both the analytical and operational, information would flow more rapidly by avoiding the tangle of bureaucracy caused by inter-departmental communication. The reforms would allow analyses to be produced and operations planned far faster and more efficiently.

The proposal is not without its critics. As the Washington Post points out, the close cooperation between the analysts and operators may lead to analysts having too much sway over operations, such that their analysis is distorted to reflect a specific view knowing that they can affect a specific operational outcome. The close contact between the two, this opinion says, could lead to a loss of objectivity in operations, as analysts’ personal opinions on their subject area rub off on operators. This criticism assumes, however, that analyses currently produced are not distorted by personal bias. While analytical reports attempt to strike an objective tone, the very nature of analysis is based on making educated guesses based on background knowledge and experience. Thus, exposing the operations side directly to multiple analysts, rather than a single seemingly objective brief or report, could serve to actually lessen the influence of individual opinions on the analytical side.

Another argument made with these reforms in mind is that the CIA and the larger intelligence community is not, in fact, broken or inadequate, but instead that it only appears that way to the American public due to its inherently opaque nature. Failures are paraded for the world to see, while successes remain hidden. While this logic does make it possible to believe the intelligence community is effective despite its bloated bureaucracy, it tries to hide the inadequacies of the current system, rather than address them. While the CIA likely does have far more successes than failures, there is always ample evidence of room for improvement and reform within the organization, especially in order to deal with the fast pace of today’s internet-wired world.

The CIA is entering a period of transition. In response to intelligence failures and darker leaks in the era of instant access and big data, the agency brass has taken the initiative to reform itself to better cope with future threats. A restructuring has the potential to greatly improve efficiency and streamline operational activity. However, these reforms must emphasize sufficient caution and foresight to address potential issues such as the undue influence by analysts on operations. These changes must take place over a gradual period, using the experience and general model of the CTC combined with a well-planned implementation to assuage the fears many have expressed over the reforms. To adapt to a rapidly changing world, the CIA and the rest of the Intelligence Community must evolve, and these reforms need to be the first step.