In 2005, a couple of weeks after President Bush signed a law creating an intelligence czar —the director of national intelligence, who would be the grandmaster of all American spycraft — I was having a cup of coffee with a recently retired senior CIA official. I asked him if he agreed with the conventional Washington wisdom of the day — that the chaotic structure of U.S. intelligence led to the Sept. 11 attacks, and that naming an all-powerful czar would prevent a repeat.
“Structure had nothing to do with 9/11,” he said. “There were people at the CIA screaming their heads off about Osama bin Laden, but their bosses didn’t really believe them, at least not enough to go out on a limb about it. You can’t fix incompetence or cowardice by drawing new lines on a table of organization.”
And, he added, the unlucky guy who became the first director of national intelligence would quickly discover that he was a 99-pound weakling on the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the bureaucratic bullies he supposedly supervised. “All the spies and satellites belong to the CIA and the NSA, not the new guy,” the official pointed out. “The only thing this reorganization is going to produce is more bureaucracy.”
Over the next decade, I’ve watched as the director of national intelligence’s office acquired a $60-billion budget and a 1,750-member staff, spawning deputy directors and assistant directors and — of course — assistant deputy directors at an awesome pace. “Help wanted” ads, too — the first DNI quit the job after less than two years, and there have been four more since.
As for the problem the creation of the DNI was supposed to fix, the chronic inability of federal intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to share information? Don’t ask. On Christmas Day 2010, a Detroit-bound airliner escaped doom at the hands of a Nigerian suicide bomber when his explosive device fizzled out. His own father had warned the CIA that he was up to something nefarious, but the bomber’s name somehow failed to reach the FBI or the FAA or anyone else who might have kept him off the plane. “The system has failed in a potentially disastrous way,” fumed President Obama.
Yet Washington’s eternal fascination with bureaucratic reorganization — its profound conviction that you can fix incompetence, cowardice or most anything else by drawing new lines on a table of organization — was not shaken. The CIA is undergoing yet another reorganization. And unlike the creation of the DNI, which at least didn’t make anything worse (aside from wasting a few hundred billion dollars), this one has the potential to do real harm.
CIA Director John Brennan is sweeping away practically every bit of the basic structure established when his agency was founded in 1947. Some of the changes are merely silly: What the CIA used to call “division chiefs” will now be “assistant directors” because — I so wish I was joking — the State Department has assistant directors, and that’s not fair.
Others will have more serious consequences. The CIA’s two principal wings — operations, which gathers information, and intelligence, which analyzes it — will be abolished in everything but name. The analysts and the spies, who’ve been deliberately separated since the CIA’s founding, will now be mixed together in “mission centers” organized by geography (say, Africa) or subject (say, nuclear proliferation).
The CIA already has a few mission centers focused on specific problems that don’t adhere to national boundaries — notably, terrorism — and they’ve worked pretty well. Their tracking of leads all over Asia and the Middle East, which eventually led to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, is a good example.
But mixing and mingling analysts and operations officers as a general proposition is a terrible idea. Operations officers are charged with carrying out government policy on the ground; analysts are supposed to be sifting through intelligence to figure out if policy is working. When the analysts get too close to policy, they’re likely to be seduced by it, to ignore signs that it’s gone off the tracks.
That possibility is more dangerous than ever because the CIA is more involved in carrying out policy than ever. When the agency’s 2013 budget leaked, it showed the CIA is now spending more money on covert action programs than on collecting human intelligence. Another sign of the times: Earlier this year, the CIA’s top paramilitary officer was named chief of its spying branch.
The bottom line on this reorganization is that the people who are supposed to provide neutral intelligence to policy-makers will now be sharing desks with the guys who staged coups in Guatemala and Iran, invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and have carried out thousands of assassinations with drones in the Middle East. To think that’s going to work out well is truly the audacity of hope.