CIA’s DECK CHAIRS

March 19, 2015–Scurrying to regain some esteem after its recent and horrendous record with the American public, two weeks ago the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) invited reporters in for a briefing on Director John O. Brennan’s ambitious plans to restructure the spy agency. This is said to be the broadest reorganization in decades–cue the horn section, piping in the background–enabling the CIA to be successful against modern adversaries.

This development is not entirely unexpected. As long ago as his 2013 confirmation hearing, John Brennan spoke of getting the agency back to its traditional tasks of spying. Months ago the agency let it be known it had set up a group to study CIA organization. Weeks ago the director of the National Clandestine Service–the agency’s spy arm–seeing the handwriting on the wall, resigned. The officer named to replace him, “Greg V.,” is the man who headed the reorganization study group. Let’s stop there.

The first thing you need to know about the “new” CIA organization is that it’s not new at all. Director Brennan is talking about “mission centers” that have a functional purpose and combine intelligence analysts with spies and covert operators. If that makes you think of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) you have the idea already. The mission center model, while not as old as the hills, has been around for two-and-a-half decades. The CTC was among the first of these entities, which were then called “fusion centers.” They were supposed to bring together analysts and operators and to combine the inputs from all kinds of intelligence activity.

By the mid-90s the fusion center was already being hailed as a panacea. There were centers aimed at counternarcotics, counterproliferation, unified intelligence on ground weapons (that fusion center helpfully provided George W. Bush the “intelligence” that artillery rocket casings were in actuality high-performance centrifuges producing the [non-existent] nuclear material for Saddam Hussein’s [non-existent] nuclear weapon), and more. After September 11 the CIA set up a Terrorist Threat Integration Center–of which John O. Brennan was the first director–and President Bush followed by creating the National Counterterrorism Center (NTC). Then the 9/11 Commission cited fusion centers as devices to break down barriers between disparate police and intelligence agencies and pretty soon you had almost sixty new regional threat integration centers bringing together operatives from Washington’s “alphabet agencies” and local police forces. That was in addition to over a half dozen such centers situated within the CIA and the NTC on top of the heap.

What John Brennan is doing with his reorganization is simply feeding the burgeoning fusion–or “mission,” or whatever you like–centers from the carcasses of CIA’s traditional line divisions. At his press conference Mr. Brennan mentioned there might be ten or more fusion centers. Terrorism, weapons proliferation, the Middle East, and cyberwarfare were mentioned as areas of responsibility. Cyber is new and reflects the Obama administration’s concern to build capabilities in this field. It will get an entire directorate. The Middle East combines features of the Middle East divisions of CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence and the National Clandestine Service. The others already exist.

To the degree that there is anything novel about the new mission centers it is that the formula adds paramilitary and other covert operators to the traditional mix. This effectively increases the militarization of the CIA and not, as the standard understanding of “getting back to traditional espionage” implies, reducing the agency’s lopsided tilt toward operations.

In addition the new form of the fusion center will weaken the CIA’s capacity for traditional types of crisis and threat intelligence. This is because the centers are operations-oriented and their intelligence analysts come to focus on mission support for their own activities.

Also distressing–and the other side of that coin–is there is a good chance the new organization will make no difference to the CIA’s ability to meet the “modern” intelligence adversary. A penetration agent–the carefully groomed spy–is the most vital source when it comes to the terrorist groups, even as she/he was in the old days against the Soviet monolith. But fusion centers encourage mechanization, not individual, long-cultivated ties. There is reason to doubt their efficacy in John Brennan’s own terms

More than that, it is probable the new organizational formula will weaken control over the entire CIA organization. That is because the centers, combining operations and analytic personnel, cannot be fairly supervised by, say, the Deputy Director for Intelligence, or the Director of the National Clandestine Service (reportedly to return to its former appellation of “Directorate for Operations,” by the way).Only the CIA chief has the breadth of responsibility to go the distance. So the fusion centers will report to him. But, the director–even John Brennan–has limited attention to devote to this and so it is probable the fusion centers will get less and less supervision–in particular as there are more and more centers. The horrible mess Director Brennan made of the rollout of the Senate torture report shows what perils lie in store here.

This rearrangement of the deck chairs on the CIA will, most likely, not get us out of the problems the agency has caused. The betting is open on the next CIA flap!