Let Them Get Back to Being Spooks


In recent weeks it seems I have read dozens of articles by journalists and political commentators all telling me that the “spooks” are “spooked” by the nomination of Congressman John Ratcliffe to be the next Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Leaving aside for a moment the fact that most of the people who now profess to be so concerned about the “politicization” of the Intelligence Community and restoring its effectiveness have been hardcore, nonstop critics of the Intelligence Community in the past, I find most of this commentary uninformed and misleading.

First, let’s get this out of the way up front. No, Ratcliffe is not a “spook.” He is a politician with a limited amount of experience on the House Intelligence Committee. He is also a diehard Trump loyalist. That a President who spent the last three years defending himself against the first attempted coup in American history would like the head of the Intelligence Community to be someone who won’t stick a knife in his back seems eminently reasonable to me.

Here’s the thing though. None of the other individuals whose names are commonly bandied about are “spooks” either. Not a single one of them has ever recruited a source, run an asset, been part of an operation in the field or put their life on the line in defense of this nation. Every last one of them is somebody who made rank riding a desk in Washington, D.C., attending meetings, preparing PowerPoint presentations and filling out spreadsheets.

All of these people are part of the vast intelligence bureaucracy that exploded in Washington, D.C. in the wake of 9/11 on the theory apparently that buildings filled with flat-screen computer monitors and people reading emails would terrify the enemy. That apparatus sucks up vast resources, commands a lot of attention and accomplishes very little.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) over which the DNI presides is Exhibit A for this kind of waste and bloat. We were blindsided on 9/11 because we had no sources of consequence inside Al Qaida – the product of years of risk aversion and timidity on our part. We responded, in the way only Washington can, by concluding that what we really needed was to add a layer of several thousand bureaucrats on top of all our existing bureaucracies.

The DNI contributes nothing of value to the nation’s defense. If Ratcliffe is confirmed, his first recommendation to the President ought to be that the entire ODNI be torn down and that leadership of the IC be handed back to CIA where it was prior to 9/11.

Then, after taking care of that task, if we are actually serious about fixing intelligence and making the nation safer, and not just looking to score political points, we ought to get to work on streamlining the entire mammoth IC machine and refocusing it not on process and paperwork but on actually running operations, penetrating hostile intelligence services, putting sources inside terrorist networks and giving the President of the United States the advance warning he needs to keep this country safe.

That means a reduction in the size of virtually every intelligence agency we have. Trim the fat. Legions of men and women sitting in cubicles in Washington, D.C. put us not one step closer to knowing what Kim Jong Un is going to do next or whether or not ISIS has a biological weapons program.

That means an end to the idea that every agency in Washington should “play” in intelligence collection. The Department of Defense (DOD) spends obscene amounts of money every year on a human intelligence (HUMINT) collection capability that is largely a waste of time and resources. Let DOD focus on warfighting. Let CIA and NSA focus on strategic intelligence collection. Time to get out of each other’s way.

Within the intelligence agencies, particularly, CIA, it means getting back to basics. It has been fashionable for many years now to think that there is nothing particularly unique about the business of espionage. Anybody can do it. Send a guy to a school for a few months, and he’ll learn everything he needs to know.

Wrong, Espionage is an art, not a science. Only a handful of unique, eclectic individuals is ever any good at it. They need to be carefully recruited, highly trained, well-seasoned and then put to work within an organization designed to let them move with the rapidity and audacity required to achieve great things.

It means putting somebody in charge at CIA who knows the trade, made their bones running operations abroad and who is not afraid of taking risks. No, that is not Gina Haspel, the current Director, who climbed the ladder based on political connections and avoiding conflict with leadership. Give command to someone who will take the organization back to its roots and the fight to the enemy.

Ultimately, this is a matter of getting back to basics, sharpening the knife and cultivating the trade. It is, in short, the antithesis of the mass market, mass production, bureaucratic approach to which D.C. has been wedded for at least twenty years now. It is also the only solution, the only thing that will make a real difference and guarantee Americans stay safe in their beds at night.

Worried what the “spooks” think? Let them get back to being “spooks.” And get everybody else out of the way.