The Magazine

Privatize the CIA

Our intelligence community could use more -competition.

Feb 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 20 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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The traditional value of intelligence products was to provide a baseline of neutral expertise, but the era of an apolitical Langley is over. In November 2005, W. Patrick Lang, former defense intelligence officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and counterterrorism, told the American Prospect of CIA analysts' attempts to hurt the White House prior to the 2004 election. "Of course they were leaking," he said. "They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They'd say things like, 'This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won't reelect this man [President Bush].'" Intelligence analysts should not participate in policymaking. Their frequent and as-yet-unplugged leaks may win some short-term policy battles for Langley, but such illegalities have badly damaged trust. To suggest the Directorate of Intelligence is policy-neutral is risible.

So what is the solution? Washington's inclination is always to expand hiring. But that will constrain rather than improve analysis. Today, the CIA's analytical wing is the ultimate expression of Parkinson's Law, rather than a generator of accurate explanation or prediction. Rather than expand, the government should privatize much of its analysis.

Privatization works. Already, Beltway firms like SAIC and Booz Allen Hamilton operate streamlined intelligence shops. Their analysts hold the highest security clearances. So do many think-tank scholars and some university academics. Many private-sector analysts have language abilities and experience their government counterparts lack.

Freeing analysts from some government rules and regulations could improve their products. Not only would it enable outside-of-the-box thinking, but it could also improve access. U.S. government personnel visiting Beirut, let alone Baghdad, must adhere to embassy regulations stipulating intrusive security for travel outside compound walls. Nongovernment employees roam free--or at least set their own rules for security.

Privatization would improve productivity. It can take the CIA hierarchy weeks to sign off on an analyst's report and release it to intelligence consumers across the U.S. government. Private companies react faster. Competition might also expedite exploitation of several million pages of documents seized in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A decade ago, the CIA curtailed its subscriber-based circulation of foreign newspapers and media broadcasts in translation, partly for financial reasons and partly out of misdirected hand-wringing that such products might violate even North Korean and Iranian intellectual property rights. Today, the Open Source Center, the office within the CIA that translates published material, still withholds much of its product from the public. Getting this into the hands of a wider pool of analysts would be in the national interest, even if the analysts offered differing interpretations.

Expanding the pool of professionals who hold security clearances would have auxiliary benefit. Not only would it enable more opinion and debate without the costs of salary and pension; but, in the long term, it would also erode the clearance lag. Even with "expedite" orders, whoever wins the presidency in 2008 will have to wait 15 months to staff the National Security Council with new faces unless they already hold clearances. At present, the CIA spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to screen and train analysts who may leave government service after only a couple of years. Making it easier for the U.S. government to employ such people would increase return on investment.

There would be drawbacks to more privatization--security and counterintelligence problems would expand--but the risks need not be excessive. Even State Department student interns receive top-secret clearances. Access to government products should still require background checks, security clearance, and the incumbent oaths to protect the material. The FBI and other relevant agencies should nevertheless expand counterintelligence checks. Dissemination of sensitive compartmentalized information like signals and communications intercepts should, of course, remain subject to the presence of adequate facilities to handle and protect the information.

Some outside scholars might also cherry-pick data. But then government intelligence analysts do so now. While data are open to interpretation, competition exposes bad methodology, and ultimately quality shines through. Individual authorship promotes accountability.

Would the CIA's analytical wing disappear? No. But it should shrink, as the pool of outside experts expands. Much of the money allocated for the analytical wing would be better applied to the Directorates of Operations and Science & Technology. Langley and its consumers might maintain yellow pages of analysts by expertise and repositories of finished products. Congressmen could call on individuals to explain their reports or even have multiple specialists debate interpretations. It is not uncommon in, say, the Pentagon for senior leaders to host closed debates among academics and analysts. One thing is certain, though. With threats multiplying, bloat and a culture of job security over performance will neither protect the United States nor promote the serious thinking needed to help it face new challenges.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was a staff adviser for Iran and Iraq in the office of the secretary of defense between 2002 and 2004.