We Are Late


Part 3: America’s Human Intelligence Capabilities And The Need For Reform

This is the final installment in a three-part series of articles on the state of human intelligence and the necessity for reform.

When you learn to run human intelligence operations you learn the importance of timing. Precision is everything. You do not meet a source “about seven pm.” You meet a source at exactly 1900. If you are not on time, you are late. There is no consolation prize for almost getting the job done. If you don’t move fast enough, you fail.

We should heed that adage and pick up the pace.

We live in an increasingly dangerous world. Threats are multiplying with terrifying speed. We cannot afford to continue to wait until we are struck and then assess how to respond. We must be able to detect and prevent attacks before they occur.

Technical means of collection are not sufficient. Satellites and electronic eavesdropping are powerful tools. They cannot tell us what is in a madman’s mind. They cannot see into all of the dark recesses in which terrorist groups and rogue nations prepare their plots.

We must have a robust, effective human intelligence collection apparatus: one which puts sources inside the upper levels of ISIS, one which puts spies inside North Korea’s ruling circle, one which tells us where the plague bacteria is being cultivated before some doomsday cult sets it free to do to us what it did to Europe in the 1300’s.

We do not have such a capability today. This is not because we do not have dedicated, patriotic men and women in our intelligence services. It is because we have treated the arcane business of espionage as if it were just another bureaucratic function.

What are the solutions?

Spying is an art not a science. It demands very special people operating in a flat, flexible structure that encourages and, in fact, demands imagination, creativity and audacity. Ponderous, multi-layered bureaucratic behemoths cannot do what must be done.

How do we get from here to there?


Over the course of many years, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reached some very deliberate conclusions about what kind of individuals make good operations officers – the individuals who recruit spies, run sources and conduct operations. The Agency compiled a very precise psychological profile, which proved in time to be astonishingly accurate.

Then, under the pressure of political correctness, the Agency abandoned this standard. It was no longer acceptable to suggest that a unique job required unique skills. That smelled of elitism. Now we would proceed as if being an operations officer, crawling into the belly of the world’s most dangerous organizations and risking life and limb was just another job.

Anybody could do it.

The results have been disastrous. We have turned out unprecedented numbers of so-called operations officers since 9/11. Within CIA, and also throughout the intelligence community, many have been dubbed “operators,” when in fact they might be great analysts, military officers, logisticians, etc. However, precious few have any of the skills required to do the job of recruiting and handling spies (aka “sources”).

We must again focus on recruiting only those few individuals who have the skills and abilities necessary to succeed in a unique and demanding profession. We do not need divisions of such people. We need relative handfuls, but we need them to be the right individuals for the job.


Once we have recruited the best people we can find, we need to subject them to rigorous training. This must be training which will prepare them to operate in classic denied areas like Moscow and Beijing, but also training that gives them the skills necessary to survive in war zones and remote Third World Nations.

It was said of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, that they wanted men with PhD’s who could win bar fights. A PhD may or may not be a requirement to be a good spy, but in essence we need exactly the same thing today. We need smart, creative people who can handle themselves in difficult situations.

Just as we must narrow our focus in recruiting, we must also narrow our focus in training. Particularly, among Department of Defense (DOD) intelligence officers being trained as an operations officer has become simply another way to pad your resume for promotion. Every year we train large numbers of servicemen and women to be operations officers knowing that almost none of them will actually ever use the training they have been given.

We don’t have time for this kind of nonsense. Anyone being trained to be an operations officer, to recruit and run sources at the strategic level, must be someone who will apply those skills over the course of a career.  We have much bigger concerns than helping would be field grade officers get a leg up on their contemporaries.


During World War II, OSS Detachment 101 in Burma had a problem – its field components were moving so fast that its headquarters could not keep up. Operations were being delayed pending provision of support or approval of specific actions. The commanding officer of Detachment 101 reacted by creating several small intermediate headquarters units, each responsible for smaller slices of the mission and then delegating to these new units the authorities previously reserved for the overall headquarters alone. He delegated authority and made clear that it was the job of these new headquarters to keep up with the field.

Field units should drive the pace of operations not headquarters.

Human intelligence operations cannot move at the pace of paperwork and process. Once upon a time CIA was built on the gospel that the Chief of Station, the head of an office in a particular country, was the captain of the ship. It was the job of headquarters to get him what he needed to do his job and otherwise stay out of his way unless there was some extreme necessity compelling it to intervene.

We must return to that ethos and that method of operation. At the height of the Second World War, Winston Churchill was famous for scribbling on messages “Action This Day” to stress the critical importance of speed and decisive action. What was true in 1940 is that much more true in an age of hypersonic missiles, biological weapons and fanatical non-state actors.

Focus DOD

Get the Department of Defense out of the business of collecting strategic human intelligence. No one would suggest having CIA form armored divisions or operate aircraft carriers. It does not begin to have the expertise or structure to do so.

Just as clearly, the Pentagon does not have the ability to conduct espionage. In fact, if you were going to build an entity which would be least likely to be able to carry out effective human intelligence operations it would probably look a lot like the enormous, ponderous, can’t-get-out-of-its-own-way structure that is today’s defense establishment. If there is a need for uniformed operations officers to run clandestine operations, then train a select number of them and put them under the control of Langley.

Put a spy in charge of CIA.

The last real operations officer to run the CIA was William Colby in the 1970’s. He was followed by a succession of outsiders with no experience in the world of human intelligence. The only partial exception to this was William Casey, whose entire prior experience in espionage had been as a young man in the OSS where he served for a brief time during World War Two.  John Brennan, CIA Director under President Obama, was technically an analyst, although his real profession for most of his career was being a Democratic political hack. The current Director, Gina Haspel, in addition to being a Brennan loyalist, is a reports officer, someone who rides a desk and processes intelligence reports produced by operations officers. She has likely never recruited a source in her life.

We don’t put quartermaster officers in charge of Marine infantry battalions. We don’t send Naval officers who have never been to sea to command destroyers. We understand instinctively that to do the jobs in question experience is crucial.

The world of espionage is no different. If you have never recruited a source, made a clandestine meeting or worked with tribal forces in remote mountain ranges you have no idea of what to do or when and how to do it. You are adrift in a world about which you know nothing.

Whatever we do it must be done quickly. Somewhere out there right now a terrorist cell is working on a plan to acquire radiological material and detonate a radiological dispersal device in a major American city, another group is finalizing the details of how to spread a lethal pathogen and Russian cyber militia are contemplating an attack on the U.S. electrical grid.

The enemy is moving at full speed. It is we who must pick up the pace, before we are late.