In recent conversations and in more formal settings with those in and around the intelligence community, it is clear there is still widespread disaffection with CIA director Porter Goss and his inner circle at the CIA and their heavy-handed ways of getting most of the senior staff there, with decades if not centuries of cumulative experience, to retire. One of the largest emerging problems, as a result, is that, while the recruitment levels at the agency have tripled since 9-11, the number of officers with field experience to guide, train and lead them has diminished to almost nothing. One of the latest to walk out the door is Robert Richer, the second-ranking official in the clandestine service, who left in a dispute with Goss’s crew, mostly brought over from the Hill, to run the CIA. Here is the Washington Post story on it.
There is no question the CIA needed to be remade in the wake of 9-11, but several retired officers who now work around the agency feel the full-scale bloodletting in recent years has left the CIA on the brink of becoming unable to produce the intelligence and analysis required of it. I have had my quarrels with the agency over time, but I know there are many good people trying very hard to do their jobs. While youth and fresh ideas are needed, they need to be blended with the experience of people who have been in the field. Some old hands are being hired back on contracts to try to help, but that is a limited and short-term fix to a structural problem that will be difficult to overcome in the near term.
There is another dangerous problem facing the intelligence community, and that is the potential dysfunctionality of the National Counter Terrorism Center. The problem, according to intelligence insiders, is that it does away with one of the main things the CIA got right in recent years–the ability to sit analysts and field operatives down together to produce an intelligence product from gathering to analysis to operations. The NCTC gives the analytical reporting responsibilities to the DNI at CIA, while the operational authority comes from the president, thus giving two chains of command. This will again fragment the analysis and collection functions and far removes decision-making process from those with the most direct knowledge of events. It will also make timely operational decision-making more difficult and less flexible. Timely, flexible responses are the mantra of intelligence reform, but is a big step back from that.
On possible solution, according to one recently retired senior official, would be to give the NCTC operational capability. But then, with all the different agencies vying to put people on the ground and wrest control of the operations, that could also be a nightmare. Who would be the lead agency? The Pentagon’s DIA? The CIA paramilitary units? Special Operations Forces? No one knows.
While all of this is a nice academic exercise in figuring out what is best, the truth is that four years after 9-11 our intelligence services are decimated, demoralized and inexperienced. That bodes ill for a time when the needs and requirements of the Community have never been higher. While it is easy to tear apart institutions, and some should be torn apart, it is far harder to reshape them intelligently into something better, while retaining the functions they do well. As attention to serious intelligence reform wanes and Congress continues to wallow in turf battles while neglecting meaningful oversight, the Community has suffered badly.