When Gen. David Petraeus became director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2011, he filled his office with weapons, military challenge coins and other mementos of war — in other words, he made it look like the Pentagon.
The decor was telling. CIA directors often come from the world of intelligence, serving as agency careerists, congressional overseers or military intelligence leaders prior to assuming the top job. Petraeus was none of those. He was an infantry guy, not a career intelligence officer, a retired four-star warrior who had commanded allied forces in Iraq and was fresh off the battlefields of Afghanistan.
As Petraeus was moving into Langley, his predecessor at the CIA, Leon Panetta, was heading to the Pentagon to become secretary of defense. The symbolism of the musical chairs was hard to miss: Intelligence and military operations had never been more fused. The leadership seats were literally interchangeable.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks ushered in many organizational changes in the federal government, including the creation of a behemoth new Department of Homeland Security, the establishment of a director of national intelligence and the largest restructuring of intelligence agencies in over half a century. But the integration of intelligence and warfighting may have been the most promising — and problematic — change of all.
Before 9/11, who did what was much clearer: The military fought wars; the CIA collected and analyzed intelligence (and carried out covert operations when it was important to hide official U.S. involvement). After the terror attacks, though, those distinctions blurred, fast. The CIA jumped into Afghanistan and became deeply involved in the day-to-day prosecution of the global war on terror.
Those efforts produced important successes. But along the way, the CIA became stretched thin. One of the more enduring legacies of the post-9/11 era is a style of spycraft that does not serve America’s national security interests as it once did. Waging two decades of war has taken time and talent away from the agency’s original purpose of preventing strategic surprise — that is, anticipating major threats to the nation before they materialize. Twenty years after 9/11, the United States faces escalating threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, conflict in cyberspace as well as physical space, and global challenges like climate change and pandemics. The CIA needs to regain the balance between fighting the terrorist enemies of today and providing the intelligence to detect, understand and stop the enemies of tomorrow.
The first troops on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11 weren’t troops. They were CIA officers carrying boxes of cash to recruit Afghan warlords. Special operations forces soon followed, then an allied bombing campaign. It’s hard to remember now with the ignominious withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan last month, but in 2001, military victory came fast. By November, the Taliban had fallen and al Qaeda was on the run. As Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants retreated to the mountains of Tora Bora, CIA officers were there, too — hunting the al Qaeda leader, working hand in hand with special operators and local Afghan militias, calling in air support from behind enemy lines. Ultimately, bin Laden narrowly escaped the dragnet, but his safe haven was gone. Without it, al Qaeda was unable to wage another mass casualty attack on American soil for the next two decades. CIA Director George Tenet called those early days in Afghanistan “the CIA’s finest hour,” and he was right.
The agency was particularly well-suited for the moment. Afghanistan was more familiar territory to spies than soldiers, the site of the CIA’s largest covert operation of the Cold War. In 1979, just days after Soviet troops rolled into Kabul and installed a puppet government, President Jimmy Carter authorized his first CIA covert action to arm and support the Afghan mujahedeen. “Our ultimate goal,” National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinksi wrote, “is the withdrawal of Soviet troops … if this is not attainable, we should make Soviet involvement as costly as possible.” In one of history’s tragic ironies, the covert operation succeeded, turning Afghanistan into a quagmire for the Soviets and eventually leading to their defeat and withdrawal — but elements of the mujahedeen and their supporters eventually morphed into al Qaeda.
In the two decades since 9/11, the CIA’s reported involvement in counterterrorism activities has deepened and expanded dramatically. Today, it’s often hard to distinguish the work of intelligence officers and military troops. Drone strikes, for example, are sometimes carried out by the intelligence community alone, sometimes by the military and sometimes by the two together. According to Panetta, the covert operation against bin Laden was carried out under CIA authorities, even though the operatives who raided the al Qaeda leader’s Pakistani hideout were Navy SEALs. The military now conducts black operations against terrorists that look a lot like covert action, while the CIA openly engages in activities that resemble military action — like launching the drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who became one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist leaders.
The melding of intelligence and traditional military activities has benefits. Just two weeks ago, seamless integration between the two reportedly enabled a U.S. drone strike to prevent what was believed to be an imminent ISIS-K suicide bombing in Kabul as American forces frantically worked to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies.
But the fusing of intelligence and traditional military activities also brings risks: Paradoxically, the institutional changes that kept us safe during the past 20 years may leave the United States less safe in the next 20.
The CIA’s role is distinct from the Pentagon’s by design. A world in which you can’t tell one from the other is a world in which the CIA isn’t doing its core job well enough — and that makes nasty surprises far more likely.
The CIA’s primary mission is not supporting warfighters on battlefields. It’s preventing “strategic surprise” to the nation. The agency was created in 1947 to prevent another Pearl Harbor. Japan’s devastating surprise attack in 1941 killed 2,400 Americans, decimated the Pacific fleet, precipitated U.S. involvement in World War II and laid bare the dangers of poorly coordinated intelligence. At the time, the Departments of Navy, War and State were all collecting information about Japan’s capabilities and intentions, including signals of the imminent deadly attack, but their efforts were fragmented and disjointed. The nation needed an agency to centralize intelligence, a sentinel whose job was to peer over the horizon to detect dangers before it was too late.
Since the 1940s, the CIA has become the nation’s premier agency for human intelligence collection and all-source analysis as well as the only organization of the federal government legally authorized to conduct covert operations (the only major exception, until 2001, to the general rule that the CIA predicted threats while the military fought them). Still, as Panetta put it during his 2009 confirmation hearings, the agency’s “first responsibility is to prevent surprise.”
It’s a simple phrase that masks complex realities. Intelligence to prevent strategic surprise is not the same as intelligence to support soldiers on the front lines. Battlefield intelligence is about the here and now. It’s tactical, near-term, on-the-ground, nitty-gritty: determining whether a bridge is passable, where a roadside bomb might be in the next village or how insurgent group allegiances are shifting. Intelligence to prevent strategic surprise is longer-term, over-the-horizon, bigger-picture. It’s more about tomorrow than today, like how the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda is likely to evolve, what it would take to convince Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program or the prospects of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The intelligence sources may be the same — a satellite capturing imagery from space, a secret human asset on the inside — but the information the sources are asked to gather and the analysis that results are very different.
And although the United States spends billions each year on intelligence, resources are inherently limited. The same satellite cannot operate over different regions simultaneously. Drones can only fly so far and loiter for so long before they run out of fuel. Spies have to be judicious about what they collect, when they collect and how much they collect so they don’t get blown. And analysts are not interchangeable — you can’t just turn a terrorism expert into a China cyber expert overnight.
Defense and intelligence may seem the same, but they aren’t. The Defense Department’s primary activity is fighting. The CIA’s primary activity is understanding. The military is supposed to win wars. The CIA is supposed to prevent them by understanding threats and opportunities better and faster than our adversaries and delivering intelligence to policymakers that helps them make better decisions. Troops are hunters; intelligence officers are gatherers. Military officers are trained, as Samuel Huntington famously wrote, in the “management of violence.” CIA officers are trained in the management of information — acquiring it, analyzing it, protecting it and delivering it at the speed of relevance.
No organization can do it all, no matter how much money it has or how many smart people it employs. And the longer an agency focuses on doing one priority well, the more its other capabilities atrophy, or retire, or walk out the door. As pseudonymous CIA officer Alex Finley wrote in these pages in 2017, for example, clandestine human intelligence collection has changed dramatically. CIA officers used to roam foreign streets to learn the culture and recruit foreign officials by attending cocktail parties and official functions. Since 9/11, however, finding high-value terrorist targets has required CIA officers to take physical risks and work with visible military security in war zones. Old-school, country-on-country spycraft is becoming more important again, yet much of the CIA’s workforce has less experience doing it because they were hired after 9/11.
For 20 years the CIA’s attention to its primary mission has been eroding. The reasons are understandable. Perhaps they’re unavoidable. But the consequences of this tactical tilt are real: a diminished ability to understand, anticipate and counter longer-term threats — like China’s rise and Russia’s information warfare — that could threaten American lives and interests far more than today’s terrorist plots.
Listen carefully and you can hear the warning bells ringing. CIA directors from the last three administrations have all voiced concerns that the global war on terror has pulled the agency too far into tactical, warfighting intelligence and that it needs to get back to the basics. President George W. Bush’s CIA director, Michael Hayden, warned at his 2006 confirmation hearings that the war on terror “just sucks energy into doing something in the here and now” and that “pulling people off for the long view” would be both essential and difficult. John Brennan, who ran the agency under President Obama, told Congress that "the CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations” and that the agency’s drone program was “an aberration” from its historic mission. And in a 2019 speech, President Trump’s CIA director, Gina Haspel, said that in its focus on the counterterrorism fight, the agency had fallen behind on tracking Russia, Iran and other adversaries, promising that a shift in priorities was underway.
This won’t be easy. Inertia is the most powerful interest group in Washington. Capabilities once acquired are hard to transfer or draw down. Congressional overseers are rewarded for looking backward — castigating intelligence agencies after the fact rather than looking ahead at how they should adapt before the next disaster strikes. And urgent intelligence needs, especially when dangers are tangible and lives are on the line, naturally crowd out those seen as important yet more distant. But as Hayden presciently warned, a CIA that focuses too much on the here and now “will appear to be successful, but we’ll be endlessly surprised.”
View original post