A Retrospective On Intelligence Operations: 9/11 Forces Changes


The following is an analysis of the evolution of political, administrative and operational change in U.S. intelligence that recently has become so apparent. This unclassified, unpublished commentary was written in February 2005 and refers to an even earlier time. In other words, the politicization seen today began back during the Carter Administration.

In 1977 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was taken over by President Jimmy Carter’s handpicked hatchet man, Admiral Stansfield Turner. Turner demanded the retirement of all operations officers whom he viewed as representative of the “old school” aggressive World War II intelligence professionals. This meant that all operations officers over 55 years of age -despite their institutional memory and operational contacts – were marked for the trash heap. The Church and Pike committees of Congress had earlier laid the political groundwork for this decimation.

The result: For nearly 30 years now the CIA has been hiring, training and, ultimately, promoting operations officers and analysts chosen more for their bureaucratic skills than their aggressive spirit. Thus, the character valued most was the antithesis of the WWII OSS heritage which had created the Agency’s image in the 1950’s and 60’s, brought its greatest successes and, admittedly, some failures. In those earlier days they weren’t afraid to fail, but the fear of failure and embarrassment haunted the Carter Administration and  Congress.

Following September 11, 2001, we have a new major war and new dangers. Politicians of both parties are dissatisfied with the CIA that has grown over the years. “Get out there and shake things up! Be aggressive!” is, in effect, what the Agency is ordered imperiously – and ignorantly -to do. The CIA Director is now expected to make the Agency instantly less risk-averse and put more weight on sophisticated operations, such as those utilizing case officers under non-official cover (NOC) as well as agents of perhaps less-than-savory repute.

Congress attained what it wanted: an intelligence agency under its thumb and vulnerable to political approval. That control has increased since,  and operations have suffered from over administration.

There are just a few little problems with that ambition: First, you can’t take a cadre of personnel chosen and promoted on the basis of their instinct to avoid taking chances and convert them magically into less risk-averse officers. Second, operating under non-official cover is a very specialized assignment guaranteed to hinder career development. Only the most mission-oriented (and perhaps foolhardy) professionals are willing to accept such assignments which, by their nature, are long-term and far away from the flagpole, as the saying goes. Furthermore, these individuals must be run by very capable handlers with a sympathetic ability to comprehend and support the needs of their NOC officers. Very few of the current crop of case officers have the experience or, I suspect, instinct to fill successfully either the role of deep cover operative or his/her handler. An entire new spotting, recruitment and training program is needed. It is doubtful the structure is there for an effective short-term result.

As to acquiring some unsavory agents with good target access, the answer should be obvious. The chances of finding a nice criminal-minded chap who for the right money will take his life in his hands to turn on his cutthroat chums works well in the movies but has far less bankability (to use a Hollywood term) in real life. Though to be fair, there have been a good many opportunities to do so in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past several years. It is, nevertheless, a very tough job to spot, develop and recruit such a star who will pay off in the box office of high-value intelligence.

Developing long-range penetration assets through early recruitment and lengthy sleeper status also looks good on paper, but never satisfies the insistent demands of the home office for “production.”  That’s the real world of intelligence; the milieu which much be addressed in order to turn around the giant ship of covert intelligence operations.

The experience of the CIA in dealing with Afghanistan and Iraq has gone a long way to toughen the modus operandi of its intelligence activity. There is once again a cadre of young officers with actual combat experience. This, in turn, has an impact throughout the various operating divisions of  the Agency. Any continuing problems the CIA has reside primarily in its luxurious enclave in Langley, Virginia and not among its field personnel.

Bit by bit the loosening of the reins on the field case officers will allow them to sink or swim. Some now will not find Agency employment consistent with the self-protective rules they are used to and will seek new careers in less risky places, but the majority should thrive. The new crop of aggressively spirited rookies will press the veterans. That’s what the tax paying public appears to want, and so far that seems to be the plan. The outcome remains to be seen.