Intelligence: The CIA Seeks To Hold On To Its Mojo


May 29, 2009: The United States decision, five years ago, to create yet another office (the DNI, or Director of National Intelligence) to control all intelligence has, as expected, diminished the CIAs long time role as the "Central" Intelligence Agency. The latest blow is a recent proposal to allow the chief intelligence officer (the CIA "station chief") at each U.S. embassy be someone other than a CIA officer. The main alternatives are someone from the DIA (the Department of Defense intelligence agency) or the NSA. The problem, as the CIA sees it, is that, if the intelligence station chief is from NSA or DIA, the senior CIA guy there would have another layer of bureaucracy to go through, and this would slow things down. Although the DNI, technically, has the power to order this change, the CIA is, unofficially, threatening to use its considerable influence (in Congress, the media and elsewhere) to oppose the move.

This proposal actually makes some sense. For example, there are a lot of talented espionage operatives in NSA and DIA who would make good station chiefs. Moreover, in many small countries, the DIA has more agents and intelligence operations than the CIA. Same deal with the NSA, whose electronic eavesdropping is often the primary source of intel on some nations.

All of these turf wars are the result of the huge growth in intelligence activities since the end of World War II 64 years ago. As some of these new agencies, especially DIA and NSA, grew quite large, it became a problem getting everyone to play from the same sheet of music. Each intelligence agency has its own little fan club in Congress, and elsewhere in the federal government and among major defense contractors, and knows how to play the media game to get what they want.

With fifteen different intelligence organizations, the problem of coordinating all of them is nothing new. The CIA was created in the 1947 to coordinate intelligence activities for the president. Unfortunately, each of the fifteen organizations has a different boss, a different mission, different traditions and, well, you get the picture. Just to drive the point home, here are the fifteen intelligence agencies, along with short description of what they do, and who they do it for.

- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The main customer is the White House, but is also supposed to keep the Department of Defense, and everyone else who works for the president, supplied with accurate and up-to-date analysis of what’s going on in the world. But when the CIA analysts present information that does not conform to what people in the White House want to see, there is pressure to modify the conclusions. This causes problems with all the other intelligence agencies. The director of the CIA is also the DCI (Director of Central Intelligence), which is supposed to mean the “intelligence czar.” Doesn’t work out like that because, as new intelligence agencies grew, or were created, over the last half century, the DCI did not control their budgets. In Washington, you really only control an organization if you control its budget.

- National Security Agency (NSA). One of the most underestimated of the intelligence agencies. The NSA collects and sorts out “signals intelligence” (messages sent regularly by radio, telephone, Internet and so on) information. More importantly, NSA develops ciphers (methods to encode secret American messages) and decipher the secret codes of other nations. The United States has always been very good at breaking codes, but doing that is only useful if the other guy doesn’t know you have broken his codes. Thus all the secrecy at NSA.

- National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). A relatively new organization (created from the Defense Mapping Agency and some other small outfits), which takes all those satellite and aerial photos and makes sense of them. NGA exists largely because of all the neat new computer tools for working on digital photos and creating useful maps and videos.

- National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Builds and maintains spy satellites. NRO gets the biggest chunk of money spent on intelligence, mainly because spy satellites are so expensive. As a result of this, too much emphasis has been placed on information (and its often misinformation) gained from these satellites. NRO just collects the data, and passes it on to other agencies for analysis and interpretation.

- Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Is something of a Department of Defense CIA. DIA collects and sorts out intelligence information from the various services and tries to eliminate duplication of effort. DIA is also big enough to go head-to-head with the CIA in disputes over resources (getting use of spy satellites) and access to the White House on intelligence matters. The head of the DIA is sort of an “intelligence czar” for all the intel shops connected, in one way or another (like NGA and NRO) to the Department of Defense.

- Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps Intelligence Organizations. Each service collects information it needs for its own operations. The DIA is used to prying stuff from the CIA, NSA and NRO (who will often hold on to material the armed forces could use because it’s “too sensitive.” That’s another way of saying they don’t trust the troops to keep a secret, even if keeping the information from the troops gets some of the troops killed in combat.)

- Coast Guard Intelligence. The Coast Guard becomes part of the navy in wartime, but in peacetime it’s part of the Department of Homeland Security and is mainly interested in information about what’s going on off American coasts.

- Department of Energy. Because the Department of Energy got control over all matters nuclear, it has developed a large intelligence operation that concentrates on what other countries are doing with nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Because of the military importance of all this, the Department of Energy intelligence is seen as part of the military establishment.

- Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The new kid on the block, is supposed to take care of intelligence on terrorism. But so far, DHS is way behind the Big Four and has to beg a lot.

- Department of State. Has always had an intelligence operation, but it was never well organized. Seemed to collect interesting gossip, and considered detailed data too geekish for diplomats. But the State Department does have one enormous advantage in that they understand foreign cultures, and that makes a big difference when they analyze what information they do have.

- Department of Treasury. Collects information that has an impact on American fiscal and monetary policy. Most of this stuff is rather easily obtained from large American financial organizations.

- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Not really an intelligence organization, and never meant to be one. The FBI is a police and investigative organization. It deals in collecting information, but for the purpose of prosecuting and convicting criminals, not for providing information on anything on a continual basis (which is what intelligence agencies do.) The FBI is trying to get permission, and money, to become a major player in the intelligence area.

Everyone talks about getting the intelligence agencies to work together, but in over half a century, no one has been able to make it happen. In fact, no one, at the moment, is making a serious effort to make it happen. It's also illuminating to remember what one real Russian czar said about the subject, "I do not rule Russia, 10,000 clerks do."

Speaking of Russia, other nations have had similar problems with competing intel agencies. For decades after World War II, the Soviet Union had two different organizations running spies overseas. Most of the effort was from the KGB (a sort of combined CIA/FBI/Border Patrol/Coast Guard/Etc.) and a much smaller GRU (military intelligence). GRU was thought to be more dangerous, perhaps because they were a smaller operation and hustled a bit more as a result. Having two Soviet spy agencies to worry about did make counterintelligence more difficult.



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