How to Fix the CIA

Monday, October 30, 2006

Let us start with an assertion with which all members of Congress and the Bush administration, including the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, would agree: The Clandestine Service hasn’t performed well against the Islamic extremist target. Now let us make another assertion that is harder to prove (few outsiders have had the opportunity to peruse pre-9/11 operational and intelligence-production files at Langley): The Directorate of Operations (DO)—responsible within the CIA for covert operations—performed poorly against all “hard targets” throughout the entire Cold War, if we measure performance by the CIA’s ability to recruit or place intelligence-producing agents inside the critical organizations of hard-target countries or groups. In “spookese,” these assets are called foreign-intelligence, or FI, agents. The DO had some luck and accomplishment in handling hard-target “walk-ins,” foreigners volunteering information to the United States. According to former Soviet–East Europe (SE) division case officers, all the important Soviet assets we had during the Cold War were walk-ins. They came to us. We didn’t recruit them, though occasionally CIA case officers turned would-be defectors into agents willing to commit espionage inside their homelands. The CIA didn’t, of course, admit this datum to the Clandestine Service’s junior-officer classes—or to anyone else—during the Cold War. It preferred to maintain the fiction that SE case officers, and operatives from other geographic divisions who prowled the diplomatic cocktail circuit, could find and recruit KGB or other Soviet officials willing to provide critical intelligence. But a former chief of the SE division, Burton Gerber, once confessed that the few Soviets ever actually recruited (and Africa, where race-conscious Russians could feel very lonely, was probably the best hunting ground) had never been valuable.

Against the jihadist target, nonofficial cover officers are really the only vehicle for penetrating radical Muslim organizations.

To my knowledge—and I have spoken to numerous case officers from all the DO’s geographic divisions and from the Counterterrorism Center—the recruitment myth/walk-in reality usually repeated itself against most hard targets the agency faced in the first 50 years after its founding in 1947. This operational hard fact leaves aside the question of whether the walk-ins and recruitments significantly improved our knowledge of the most lethal aspects of our enemies. In the case of the Soviet Union, the answer would have to be yes, certain key agents did provide highly valuable information, though it is certainly debatable whether any asset—even the most prized scientific sources reporting on Soviet avionics—changed the way the West arrayed itself during the Cold War. These assets never snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, but they probably gave air force planners more confidence in the superiority of their weapons and tactics over those of the Warsaw Pact.

With respect to Iraq, Cuba, East Germany, North Vietnam, and North Korea, however, the answer appears to be a resounding no. In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the first few years after the Islamic revolution, the CIA probably gets a C because former officials and officers of the old regime, who were kept on in the new regime, occasionally provided illuminating information about the postrevolution Iranian military, particularly in its fight against Saddam Hussein. After 1989, with the end of the Iraq-Iran war, the death a year earlier of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the great Iranian “takedown” (in which Tehran demolished the CIA’s network inside the country), the scorecard on the DO’s performance probably wouldn’t be passing. Work against the United States’ likely next superpower adversary, communist-now-fascist China, would also probably get a failing grade. Case officers to whom I’ve spoken differ on this point, though none thinks the CIA’s operational work against Beijing should get high marks. At least one, an attentive Chinese-speaking ops officer who served in Beijing in the 1990s, believes Langley’s Chinese operations are thoroughly penetrated by Chinese counterintelligence. In other words, what the Soviet Union did to us in the 1980s, the People’s Republic is doing now.

National security is not an area where civil service regulations should apply. Egalitarianism has no place in an organization such as the CIA that is trying to penetrate groups that want to nuke the United States.

I bring up the deficiencies of the past only to underscore the most urgent problems that now face us in constructing a CIA that has as its primary target Islamic extremist groups. Langley properly has a larger role than this—and I will discuss that role below—but a CIA that tries to reconstruct itself to battle Al Qaeda and other Islamic militant organizations will surely become a better intelligence service against the Chinese, North Koreans, or Russians.

Less Is More

What would a more operationally effective clandestine service look like?

First and foremost, it would be much smaller and overwhelmingly weighted in favor of the nonofficial cover officer, known in the trade as a NOC (pronounced “knock”). The CIA would still have stations and bases abroad located within official U.S. facilities, but their focus would no longer be on recruiting foreign agents. Even the biggest stations ought to have just a handful of officers: a station chief, who would primarily be a liaison officer with the host country’s security and intelligence services and who would have absolutely no control over NOC operations in his or her country; a deputy, who also would be essentially a liaison officer; a nondeclared consular-covered case officer who never did liaison work would be necessary in posts where visas had a decent chance of offering avenues into radical Muslim or Middle Eastern communities; and a communications specialist and an administrative assistant to make up the rest of the typical station. The CIA would have to make a special case—and the bar should be very high—for nondeclared “unilateral case officers” working under official, nonconsular cover. There may well be compelling reasons for such operatives here and there, particularly on a temporary basis, but the congressional oversight committees and the White House should assume that Langley will try to bloat the size of its required workforce. And it wouldn’t be that hard to verify CIA requests. If Langley couldn’t demonstrate a track record of high-quality reporting from “inside” officers, then further staffing at the stations in question should be rejected.

The objective here is to break the back of the bureaucracy that has maintained the Clandestine Service recruitment myth for nearly 50 years. If we do not destroy this employment and governing structure within the DO, then the service will not be able to heal itself and develop operations that have greater odds of penetrating Islamic terrorist networks.

The CIA will need all the help it can get to attract the right kind of young men and women to penetrate radical Muslim organizations. Admission standards must be demanding.

The Clandestine Service needs a small, highly focused NOC cadre aimed at targets where it can make a difference. Against the jihadist target, nonofficial cover officers are really the only vehicle for penetrating Muslim radical organizations. Unlike “inside” officers, they can set up Muslim front organizations—charitable or educational societies aimed at attracting the kind of Muslim fundamentalists who have joined violent militant groups. They can much more naturally find prospective Muslim agents, who might possibly get close to, or join, radical Islamic associations that feed holy warrior organizations. Unlike “inside” officers, they can conceivably directly approach radical groups as prospective Muslim recruits. NOCs can come at these organizations from several different angles: as Muslim Arab-Americans, as John Walker Lindh–type white converts, as Black American–born or converted Muslims, as José Padilla–type Hispanic converts, or as third-country (French, English, Mexican, Canadian, African, or Chinese) Muslims angry at the United States. Properly chosen and properly trained, nonofficial cover officers can hit these organizations worldwide. The mission will certainly be dangerous, which will be part of the appeal to the young men and women who would join this new NOC force. If they stay alive, case officers in this work cannot expect to last long. The option for nonofficial officers to retire with a full pension as early as 40 would not be unreasonable. The world of Islamic militants is unavoidably a young person’s domain. Starting salaries for such operatives should be in the six figures—a beginning salary of $250,000 would be appropriate given the high risks involved and the difficulty the CIA will have attracting and keeping Americans with the right qualifications. The agency is an “exempted service” precisely because national security is not an area where civil service regulations should apply. Egalitarianism—the public service sentiment that says case officers should not make more than diplomats, soldiers, or U.S. senators—has no place in an organization trying to penetrate groups that want to nuke the United States.

Setting High Standards

The CIA will need all the help it can get to attract the right kind of young men and women. Admission standards must be demanding. For example, the British Indian Civil Service required successful applicants to have first-degree (and occasionally second-degree) university awards in the hardest subjects. It did not like, for example, to take honors students from Middle Eastern language programs because it did not consider a first in Arabic to be as reliably rigorous as a first in Ancient Greek. Anyone who conquered the classics was assumed to be capable of mastering Persian, the administrative language of both the Indian moguls and the British. English pedantry aside, this type of elitism—at all times mixed with an American appreciation for practical experience and an un-American appreciation for youthful lives spent abroad—couldn’t hurt the CIA. But it won’t save it. Only destroying the bureaucracy and operational ethics of “inside” case officers can salvage the place. But higher admissions standards would go a long way to building a meaningful esprit de corps in the all-critical early years of a case officer’s life.

Setting high standards for everyone is key. The CIA’s mission is to penetrate radical Islamic groups. The White House and Congress ought to set demanding objectives and then hold case officers, particularly senior case officers, to them. There is a wide variety of Islamic fundamentalist orga-nizations. Some are more aggressively ecumenical than others. Some are dangerous. Some aren’t. Many, if not most, may offer some valuable information in the United States’ battle against holy warrior Islam. Give the CIA’s counterterrorism units a sliding time scale for penetrating these organizations (not much time would be required to get inside the Pakistani-headquartered Tablighat; years might be required to secrete someone into the Al Qaeda–allied, Europe-based Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat). Regularly review the agency’s work and start firing case officers who fail to advance the mission. Good case officers may occasionally get unfairly punished, but the odds are excellent that worthless operatives will be removed from service in much greater numbers. If we are in a war, we should have wartime standards for achievement. From 1941 to 1944, the U.S. Army demoted and spit out an enormous number of incompetent officers. From September 11, 2001, to today, how many CIA operatives have been fired for failure to penetrate radical Islamic organizations? The odds are that the answer is zero.

The Cold War gave our secret bureaucrats a sustaining myth for 40 years. For a decade, they lived without a replacement. The war on terror has now given them another, and rest assured they will run with it.

What must be avoided at all costs is President Bush’s planned 50 percent increase in the size of the Clandestine Service. According to active-duty case officers, operational slots within official facilities overseas are being increased substantially, and defunct Cold War–era bases are being reopened without regard to whether those offices can contribute serious foreign-intelligence reporting or facilitate the reception of high-value “walk-ins.” Few good recommendations came out of the 9/11 Commission, and hiring more case officers was one of the worst. And the Robb-Silberman report goes even further in recommending the “bigger is better” ethic for U.S. espionage. If one reviews the CIA’s operational messes over the past 40 years, the Casey years would probably win as the period of the most damning espionage failures. Casey didn’t directly have anything to do with the awful performance of U.S. intelligence, particularly counterintelligence, during his tenure. But there is a very good argument to make that Casey and President Reagan’s decision to flood the CIA with cash and new personnel—when I entered in 1985, old-timers regularly referred to the Casey years as “a new golden age,” the best since the 1950s—accelerated Langley’s rot by massively expanding the case officer cadre and, with it, recruitment and intelligence-reporting exaggeration and fraud.

This hunger for recruitments reached its ugliest crescendo in the great Iranian takedown of 1988–89 and in the Cuban doubles fiasco (when Cuban intelligence successfully dangled and turned probably every single CIA asset in Cuba). The Cuban fiasco stretched over at least two decades, but there is good reason to believe that the successes of Cuban intelligence increased significantly in the 1980s when CIA case officers, especially those from the Latin America division, became ever-more greedy in their quest to recruit Cubans and get promoted. The Iranian roll-up, which was probably the most lethal mess the CIA had experienced since the covert-action nightmares of the early Cold War in Eastern Europe and China, and the Cuban counterespionage coup were the unintended by-products of Casey’s commendable desire to improve U.S. intelligence capabilities. General Michael Hayden and George W. Bush will inevitably add fat to the same fire unless they first overturn the rule and bureaucracy of “inside” case officers.

The U.S. war on Islamic militancy was a godsend to our secret bureaucrats. The Cold War gave them a sustaining myth for 40 years. For a decade, they lived without a replacement. The war on terror has now given them another, and rest assured they will run with it. It’s a very good thing for the United States that we are likely to win this war, as we won the last one, be-cause of U.S. might and the global appeal of democracy. If we had to depend on the CIA, Islamic radicals and rogue states would have much better odds.