New Panaceas at the CIA

November 20, 2014–Remember when torture practiced on prisoners held at CIA black prison sites was going to win the war on terror (by revealing terrorists’ plans)? Or how about the time when the NSA’s dragnet eavesdropping was going to do the same, by making the terrorists’ identities pop out, after which they could be apprehended (there have been three payoff cases after trillions of pieces of data intercepted over more than a decade). Less known, but the same general idea, when Michael V. Hayden (who had also started the NSA eavesdropping) led the CIA he started a campaign to up its “operational tempo,” and get at the terrorists by means of a blizzard of activity. Every intelligence director, it seems, feels a necessity to contrive some new formula that will bring us victory. Let’s put aside for a moment the victory “over what” question and just focus on this matter of presumptive panaceas.

Today brings news of a fresh attempt at a perfect solution–revamping the CIA. Its current director, we are told, is considering a scheme to create offices that mix intelligence analysts and operatives to focus on some special subject or area. That ought to sound familiar too. It is the latest version of the idea of creating “fusion centers,” which actually traces as far back as the CIA of the 1990s. For a time, in fact, fusion centers seemed the wave of the future and not just at CIA. After 9/11 the entire homeland security regional organization based itself upon fusion centers that brought local police and federal agencies together to pool their data. John O. Brennan, our CIA chieftain, headed an early incarnation of a fusion supervisory staff that was known as the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. That, in turn, was a precursor to the National Counterterrorist Center, which is a fusion unit.

The notion of mixing analytical and operational skills is superficially attractive but the issue is more complex than that. The CIA has traditionally consisted of an intelligence directorate that comprised offices which specialized in either regions of the world (e.g. Near East and South Asia) or particular subject areas (such as “global issues”); plus an operations directorate (now called the National Clandestine Service) whose branches were either comparable or functional (things like “special activities”–paramilitary operations).

With the end of the Cold War the idea of functional foci became popular and the fusion centers–which actually harked all the way back to successful intelligence operations of World War II–were born. But breaking down the walls between analysts and operatives has not actually brought the hoped-for results. One of the first units of this sort focused on counternarcotics. The drug trafficking has never been eliminated. There was the counterproliferation center. That had mixed success, inducing Libya to dispense with its nuclear program but succumbing to Bush administration desires for CIA endorsement of an Iraqi nuclear threat in service of its plans to invade that country. The fusion center in charge of intelligence on ground weapons also fell into line with the Iraq invasion scheme. The CIA’s counterterrorism center failed to eliminate Bin Laden in the 1990s, and way oversold the prospects for obtaining intelligence by means of torture in the oughts.

A significant drawback of fusion centers that have an operational role is the drive to find reasons (read contrive intelligence reporting) why their operatives should be in the field on an issue. Now let’s bring back the question of “victory” as it pertains to the intelligence reporting. Al Qaeda has been virtually wiped out. The local and regional terrorist groups that exist do not have the heft–or represent the same threat. No terrorist strike has taken place in the United States–“imminent” or otherwise–since 2001. Yet the National Counterterrorist Center (NCTC) steadfastly resists any conclusion that the threat is diminished. Instead it argues the threat is greater. In the Yemen, in North Africa, Somalia, and Iraq (now Iraq-Syria) the NCTC has each time pictured jihadi movements as Al Qaeda offshoots, which is true only in the sense that the various movements are made up of religious fundamentalists. The NCTC is probably relieved right now that the jihadists of ISIS/ISIL seem so fierce because it lends some credence to their hard line.

To reorganize the CIA into a collection of fusion centers like this appears to me as a long step in the wrong direction. The last thing we want is an intelligence agency made up of wannabe operators.