John Brennan’s nomination to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency has sparked another debate about Langley’s priorities and deficiencies. Brennan, the king of drones at his counterterrorist perch in the White House, could accelerate, some critics fear, the agency’s transformation into a high-tech killer elite who no longer apply themselves assiduously to the recruitment and running of human spies. America’s war against Islamic radicalism has already, some observers think, caused the Clandestine Service to mutate into an organization whose ethos is defined by paramilitary officers.
For those with a memory, this criticism sounds familiar. Not that long ago—2001 to be exact—the CIA and the Clinton administration were scorched for supposedly allowing clandestine human-intelligence collection to decline in favor of high-tech satellite reconnaissance and communications intercepts. This critique dovetailed nicely with an elitist take on Langley: An intelligence community too concerned with gadgets hadn’t made the necessary effort to recruit the best and brightest from America’s top-tier schools. If the operations and analysis directorates had only employed more and better-paid Yalies, the reasoning went, we might not have had 9/11.
These criticisms followed an earlier and even more politically charged one: Espionage had fallen victim to “covert action” during the Reagan years, just as “HUMINT” had played second fiddle to “CA” when Allen Dulles was the central intelligence director in the 1950s. The 2007 best-seller Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner, then intelligence reporter for the New York Times, advanced this narrative and suggested that George W. Bush and his Global War on Terrorism had led Langley, again, into a covert-action morass. Since the agency’s paramilitary activity is a form of covert action, this critique, as Weiner himself recently put it in the Times, is still valid.
Neat, literarily appealing, and a bit harsher on Republicans than post-Vietnam Democrats, all these criticisms are wrong. Killer drones, reconnaissance satellites, the global array of electronic ears run by the military’s National Security Agency, and covert action haven’t hurt the CIA mission to find and run spies against the country’s adversaries and enemies. The agency has often conducted espionage poorly, but that has a lot to do with the nature of the profession—our faults are common among foreign intelligence services—and the particularities of the bigger-is-better American character. Predators, high-tech “toys,” and most profoundly covert action have, more often than not, pushed the CIA to collect better human intelligence.
Always remember: Espionage is cheap. A couple billion dollars can give anyone a global spy service. I have never heard an American case officer who was running an operation say that he no longer had the money to do what he needed for his job. This isn’t true in the foreign service. American diplomats usually don’t even have the pocket money to take their foreign counterparts to lunch with the regularity conducive to intimate, illuminating reporting. And truth be told, it is America’s diplomatic cables, as routine as they often are, that give Washington analysts, including those stacked up like firewood inside Langley, the grist for their work.
Although the insolvency of the U.S. government may one day force bean-counters to cut real muscle from the CIA’s workforce, that hasn’t happened yet. The Clandestine Service still has, like Langley’s analytical wing, far too many officers feeding the bureaucratic beast. Given the reality of recruiting spies (the best intelligence sources usually volunteer their services), the CIA has too many operatives chasing too many mediocre targets. Thank God for satellites, intercepts, and the tens of billions of dollars spent on other forms of electronic intelligence. They have provided more golden insights than espionage.
And the agency’s paramilitary officers and the paramilitary contractors hired since 9/11 have not changed Langley’s bureaucratic structure. “Inside” staff—case officers who rise through the ranks working the espionage beat—still rule. The paramilitary corps, known often as “knuckle-draggers,” like the more refined cadre of non-official-cover officers who never set foot inside an embassy or consulate, are still not considered fast tracks for promotion. As in any organization, find the fastest track for advancement, and you will find that institution’s ethos. Throughout the Vietnam years, when case officers flooded into Southeast Asia, and the paramilitary contingent within the operations directorate grew enormously (far more than we’ve seen since 9/11), classic spy-hunting operatives never lost control of Langley.
More important, paramilitary work, even when it’s just providing training to foreign security services, brings case officers closer to their targets. It forces operatives to be more familiar with the terrain, the cultural, political, and geographical imperatives that often define a people, especially in less-developed, war-ravaged lands. It raises the CIA’s intelligence-collection game.
Drones do, too. The agency and the Pentagon need “targetable” information to use these machines. Information provided by foreign-intelligence “liaison” services and electronic intelligence are often indispensable to aiming a Predator at an enemy. But CIA clandestine human intelligence can matter. A file review of drone targeting would probably reveal that the Clandestine Service has not regularly supplied the critical information necessary for a lethal strike—hence the more complex targeting matrix to which administration officials sometimes allude. But to the extent that the service has helped, it has obliged case officers to push themselves intellectually and operationally. It pulls—harder than traditional espionage—“inside” case officers out of their diplomatic preserves. That’s never a bad thing.
The odds are good that the CIA has an increasingly weak grasp of its primary targets in the Islamic world. The tumult of the Arab Spring, the historic failure of still-friendly Arab intelligence services to see beyond their national borders, the overkill of drones (if a terrorist is worth a missile, he may well be worth risking American lives to capture and aggressively interrogate), and the inability of the CIA to operate in dangerous places when the U.S. Army isn’t present—all are working against Langley. With an American withdrawal, Afghanistan will likely become a black hole for reliable HUMINT. The coming darkness regionally is probably unavoidable. And if the terrorists successfully strike, the debates and recriminations will recycle as painfully as before.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.