Intelligence: The Craven Defenders


October 31, 2010: The CIA recently revealed its internal investigation of how a suicide bomber got into a CIA compound in Afghanistan a year ago, and killed seven CIA personnel and a Jordanian intelligence agent. The CIA concluded that no one, still alive, was responsible for the security debacle. There were multiple errors made, most of them the responsibility of the agent in charge of the Afghan base, who was killed in the attack. While the CIA acknowledged that there were failures farther up the chain of command, no one was punished. These errors included warnings (that the bomber, a local informant, was working for the enemy) that were not passed along to the agent-in-charge in Afghanistan. There were also training lapses for the agent-in-charge in Afghanistan, as well as some obviously ineffective supervision of such operations, as far back as senior officials in the United States. While the Russians, and the U.S. Navy, are notable for using the "vertical chop" (firing many, if not all, commanders in the chain of command when such things happen), most large government bureaucracies take care of their own, especially in the senior ranks. At worst, poor performers may be transferred to other jobs, or encouraged to quietly retire. This may have happened in this case, but it is kept quiet, to protect reputations and morale at the top.

For an organization that should depend a lot on risk taking, the CIA has, like most government bureaucracies, become risk-averse. An example of this occurred earlier this year, when media reports revealed that the CIA was paying Afghan government officials for information. The CIA wanted background info on what Afghan politicians and parties were really up to, and found more of it could be obtained with "gifts". The news reports described these payments as somewhat distasteful behavior. What the media reports really revealed was how difficult it was for the CIA to do its job.

All this became an issue after September 11, 2001, as the CIA has undertook a massive recruiting program (of analysts and field operators), and introduced lots of new technology (especially for the analysts) and techniques. All this was largely the result of the CIA being put into a sort of semi-hibernation since the late 1970s. This was an aftereffect of the Church Committee, an investigative operation sponsored by Congress, that sought to reform, and punish, the CIA.

The reforms were mainly about eliminating CIA spying inside the United States, or doing stuff for the president that Congress did not approve of. There was also a desire to avoid any CIA connection with foreign unpleasantness (like using unsavory people as spies or informants, or paying foreign politicians for information). This led to a growing list of restrictions on what the CIA could do overseas, and at home. Congress was out to make sure no future president (the CIA works for the president) could use the CIA as had been done during the Vietnam war, and before. The CIA interpreted this as "no more James Bond stuff." From now on, just use your spy satellites and write up your reports. The Church Committee ensured that the CIA became a much less interesting place to work. A lot of the most capable people got out over the next two decades. Recruiting became difficult.

But after September 11, 2001, the CIA was tossed a huge pile of money and told to staff up and get going and save us all from the Islamic terrorists. The Church Committee restrictions were largely, if not completely, discarded. Recruiting efforts were greatly expanded, and since September 11, 2001, several hundred thousand applications were received. The agency has had a hard time keeping up with that.

This created some interesting personnel problems, especially in the operations division (the people who go to foreign countries and, well, sometimes do James Bond stuff.) There were few people left in the agency that remembered how to do field ops the old school way. By late 2001, many retired field ops guys were being lured back to active duty. You now had a situation where the field ops population was a cross between a college fraternity and retirement community. There are few people in the middle, age and experience wise. It was almost as bad in the analysis division (where the data is studied and reports prepared.)

The area of the CIA that has flourished in the last three decades has been the geek side of things. These folks were always flush, thanks to a Congress that felt safer with spy satellites, than with spies on the ground. But those days were over. Much of the new technology was going to the analysts (better computerized tools to dig quickly through information) and the field operatives (like Predator UAVs, at 10 million bucks each.) A lot of money was going into training (learning Arabic, Pushto, Farsi and Dari was encouraged, and sometimes demanded) and the use of consultants (often former CIA operatives who would not come back full time.)

But now Congress is resuming the cycle all over again. The CIA is being investigated for doing what was desperately demanded of it after September 11, 2001. Proposed new restrictions would outlaw things like the use of contractors for interrogations (even if there were no other source of manpower to do the job in time), the use of "vigorous interrogation", the detention of foreigners without giving them access to the U.S. criminal justice system, and many more items that most CIA officials know, from their own experience, will only get Americans killed. They know that because they paid attention to what the Church Committee restrictions did to degrade U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities.

Thus the thousands of new people hired into the CIA since September 11, 2001, will be, for the foreseeable future, the only ones with practical experience in effective espionage. Congress wants new hires to stay away from anything that is unpleasant, politically incorrect, or potentially embarrassing when the media gets hold of it. What is different this time is that the "old hands" won't be overrepresented by Ivy Leaguers and men from the northeast. This time, a disproportionate number of the experienced agency personnel will come from the heartland (everything but the east and west coasts). The recent recruiting program relied heavily on mass media, using radio, newspapers and the Internet to cast the recruiting net as wide as possible. So the new generation of experts are, literally, coming from a different place than the generations that ran ops during World War II and Vietnam. Aside from that, it looks like history is going to repeat itself. Not the first time that has happened.

But the new generation won't take over for another twenty years of so. In the meantime, those running the agency are those who came up in the shadow of the Church Committee. Promotions during this time went to the risk-averse. The ability to cover your ass and avoid responsibility was a major career enhancer. While the CIA could still fire at will, this was generally applied to low ranking personnel. Once you reached SES (Senior Executive Service), you became a member of the defenders, those who protected the CIA from Congress, bad media exposure and the dismissal of SES level officials. While the CIA exists to protect the United States, those who run the CIA are more concerned with protecting themselves and the agency.



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