The Sorry State of the CIA

Former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht has a piece entitled, “The Sorry State of the CIA” in the current Weekly Standard. He devotes several paragraphs to discussing the bureaucratic biases and careerism have simultaneously weakened our ability to conduct covert operations and given that side of the Agency too much power vis-a-vis the analytical side. He also notes that, because of specialization and classification, most members of Congress and, especially, the press, are misdiagnosing the nature of the problem.

Historians will probably view CIA reporting on the Iraq WMD threat as no less responsible than Agency analysis of the WMD threat from the former Soviet Union. That analysis certainly had its flaws, but these were the result primarily of questionable assumptions about Soviet statistics and economics and a failure to assess accurately the Soviet Union’s willingness to feed its military complex at unsustainable levels. The CIA was certainly guilty then of “group think”–a charge now hurled by the Senate committee at the Directorate of Intelligence. But the CIA is always guilty of “group think” since Agency reports, and especially national intelligence estimates, are designed to reflect the collective wisdom of the organization and the intelligence community. That wisdom may be flawed–unconventional, brilliant insights into countries or people almost always come from individuals working alone or in very small groups, marrying their intuition with facts. For better or worse, the American intelligence community is allergic to this kind of analysis, which it usually condemns as “subjective.” The Senate select committee, which has been receiving the Agency’s “group think” pieces for decades, could have, perhaps, complained about this method and style earlier.

It is also absolutely true that George Tenet’s CIA failed to penetrate Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. And only penetrations at the highest political and scientific levels could have possibly given us evidence that Saddam Hussein had decided to give up his billion-dollar, decades-long quest to develop weapons of mass destruction. (And note the plural “penetrations”: Against such a proficient counterespionage regime, there would have to be more than one penetration, assessed for protracted periods of time, before it would be possible to believe that the information from these assets was not disinformation.) But it is also true that the CIA failed to penetrate Moscow’s inner circle in the Cold War and that the great agents we did have (the most valuable were probably scientists) were all volunteers. The CIA was not similarly lucky with Saddam Hussein’s regime, whose Orwellian grip on Iraqi society was as savage as Joseph Stalin’s on the USSR. It’s a very good bet that the CIA has not had a single penetration in the inner circle of any of its totalitarian adversaries. The same is probably true for the French, British, and Israeli foreign intelligence services. In other words, one simply cannot judge the caliber of a Western espionage service by its ability to penetrate the power circles of totalitarian regimes. The difficulties are just overwhelming.

One can, however, grade intelligence services on whether they have established operational methods that would maximize the chances of success against less demanding targets–for example, against Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, which is by definition an ecumenical organization constantly searching for holy-warrior recruits. It is by this standard that George Tenet failed and the CIA will continue to fail, assuming it maintains its current practices. But the odds are poor that the White House, Congress, and the press will condemn the Agency for its failure to develop a workable strategy and tactics against the Islamic terrorist target. The politically charged Iraq war, like Iran-contra before it, will now dominate Washington’s view of the Agency.

He also argues that the organizational culture of the Directorate of Operations, going back to William Casey’s tenure during the Reagan Administration, has over-relied on recruitment of foreign agents of dubious value.

Successful espionage operations against al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations would be defined by the efforts of a small group of men who seed themselves into these organizations. Some, probably most, of these men would need to be actual case officers–CIA employees–not foreign agents the CIA has recruited. The complexity of the task, target, and culture demands a level and reliability of information that would come much more easily from case officers acting as jihadists. The CIA will be a serious espionage organization ready for the twenty-first century only when its professional ranks are dominated in numbers and influence by such officers, who operate far away from U.S. embassies and consulates.

The entire system for finding, training, and deploying overseas case officers of this type needs to be completely overhauled. The “farm,” the legendary training ground for case officers in the woody swamps of Virginia, ought to be abandoned. It has never had much relevance to the practice of espionage overseas. It is a symbol of the Agency’s lack of seriousness. This new cadre needs to be a breed apart. Their operational half-life in the field might be at most ten years. It is hard to imagine them married and with kids. It is also hard to imagine their coming into being unless these jihadist moles are well paid. A starting salary of a quarter of a million dollars a year would be reasonable. Outsiders will know such a change is afoot when there are rumors of case officers’ regularly dying abroad.

This is not likely to happen, of course. Tenet, like Casey, will be damned for the wrong things. And if another 9/11 happens, we will start all over again, with more committees, investigations, recriminations, and blue-ribbon recommendations. Another director will come, and the Agency–in the press at least–will again be reborn. We can all be thankful, of course, that bin Ladenism will in the end be defeated not by the prowess of American intelligence, but by the democratization of the Middle East. Otherwise, we would be effectively defenseless against a small, tightly knit platoon of holy warriors who live to kill and die.

This is provocative and would indeed represent a sea change in our clandestine intelligence program. Assessing the recommendation is well beyond the scope of my expertise, beyond agreeing that it is incredibly unlikely to happen. My gut reaction is that it would be far easier to reform the process whereby we recruit foreign agents than it would to establish a substantial, redundant, network of undercover agents penetrating the jihadist movement. Not only are there likely to be too few Americans willing to undertake such a mission, but the types of men we’d have to recruit for such a mission would have an unsual likelihood of going native. Ethically and legally, it would also be quite problematic, in that this would mean that our agents would almost certainly have to participate in terrorist acts, including murders, to gain sufficient trust as to be given access to worthwhile high-level intelligence.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Attila Girl says:

    You’re probably right, though “Taliban John” (the Walker kid) seems to suggest that it might be possible to overcome these obstacles.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Except the “going native” part 😉