by Emile Nakhleh
As Director John Brennan proceeds with his unprecedented reorganization of the Central Intelligence Agency into 10 “mission centers,” sustaining deep expertise among analysts will be a key challenge facing the Agency’s senior leadership. An unintended consequence of placing analysts and operators in one pod, similar to the Counter Terrorism Center (CTC), could focus on “current” developments and activities at the expense of long-term strategic analysis.
Tracking, locating, and killing terrorists, which CTC operators are professionally trained to do, are drastically different missions than the analysis of trends. Analysts rely on their expertise to understand the economic, environmental, political, social, and religious factors that influence the policies of a particular leader or country. Such analysis underpins intelligence judgments and briefings offered to senior policymakers.
Intelligence analysis—grounded in years of expertise building in the history, culture, and language of different countries and based on evidence—is crucial in presenting the president and other senior policymakers with an in-depth understanding of the context of a specific country or leader. The “value added,” which the president and his advisers look for in intelligence analysis and judgments, is a product of many years of substantive expertise building.
Questioning the Reorg
The New York Times reported March 7 on Brennan’s meeting with reporters the previous day to discuss the envisioned CIA reorganization. According to the Times, Brennan said that the “reorg” would “make the CIA better at spying in an era of continued terrorism, cyberspying and tumult across the Middle East.”
In reaction to Brennan’s statements, five fundamental questions come to mind:
- Will the reorganization help the CIA avoid intelligence failures and save the country from dealing with the disastrous consequences of such failures?
- Will senior analysts find a welcoming home in the mission centers on the same footing as operators and spies?
- Will they be rewarded for producing medium-term and long-term strategic reports that highlight disturbing trends over the next three-five years?”
- Will their warning articles be given the necessary weight to be included in the president’s daily briefings?
- Will undercover spies share raw data about their sources with the analysts sitting next to them in the mission centers—for example, the nature of the source’s access to the information, the level of confidence in the information, and the possibility of deception in the information?
If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, reorganizing the CIA into mission centers should not adversely affect the Agency’s analytic mission. A successful long-term mission of the CIA can only be achieved by guaranteeing the independence and access of the Agency’s analysts.
I used to hear former CIA Director George Tenet frequently say that the two fundamental missions of the CIA were collection and analysis. Does the new plan safeguard both missions equally? Or does it give undue preference to collectors, trackers, and spies?
Brennan’s defenders strongly favor cloistering “undercover spies and analysts” together. His detractors, on the other hand, have found serious flaws in the plan. By forcing analysts to be more attuned to policy issues and targeting requirements, according to these critics, intelligence analysis would lose objectivity.
In a memorandum to the president on March 9, a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity argued that the CIA reorganization plan “is a potentially deadly blow to the objective, fact-based intelligence needed to support fully informed decisions on foreign policy.”
The memorandum called on the president to “create an independent entity for CIA intelligence analysis immune from the operational demands of the ‘war on terror.’” If objective analysis becomes diluted, the CIA would be rendered less effective in advising the president on global developments.
Since the Middle East, according to Director Brennan, will be one of the new Mission Centers, how will the new structure address the myriad of critical issues in the Middle East?
The Middle East has seen high unemployment, severe poverty, state failure, dictatorship, repression, corruption, sectarianism, violations of human rights, environmental degradation, shortage of drinkable water, and of course, radical ideologies and terrorism. Let’s consider a few examples.
The two sets of conditions that drive terrorism—poor governance and intolerant religious ideologies—are pervasive in the Middle East. Tracking and liquidating terrorists, the focus of operatives working in the new Middle East Mission Center (MEMC), is only a small part of what the CIA does to protect U.S. national security interests.
Understanding the region, which presumably constitutes the lion’s share of the work within the MEMC, will fall on the shoulders of analysts, not undercover spies. Effective analysis must be interdisciplinary and free of “stovepipes.” It also must cut across different disciplines, from economics and history to religion and cyber security.
Although analysts are expected to address tactical or current questions, the bulk of analysis of the factors that drive terrorism, instability, and sectarian conflicts must be strategic and long-term in nature. If analysts were encouraged to pursue their research and analysis independently and objectively, the MEMC would succeed. If not, the reorganization would be disastrous for the future of the Agency and its ability to serve the senior political leadership.
Human intelligence—that is, operatives on the ground—is absolutely necessary for collecting information on governments, leaders, governing elites, and political parties. But it is the primary responsibility of expert analysts, across disciplines, to analyze the context that gives rise to and nurtures poor governance—from autocracy and corruption to a lack of accountability and transparency.
If analysts feel restrained because of limited access, a lack of interest in strategic analysis, or political considerations toward a particular country, their analysis would be clouded and less useful to policymakers.
In the case of close U.S. allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, operators and spies are interested in establishing and maintaining contacts with influential government officials in those countries. The short-term view of spies is that these contacts serve US national security interests regardless of the countries’ poor human rights record, divisive sectarianism, high-level corruption, and mismanaged economic policies.
Knowledgeable analysts, on the other hand, would view these conditions, together with the intolerant Salafi-Wahhabi ideology that Saudi Arabia spews out, as contributing factors to radicalization and terrorism. If their analytic judgment contradicts that of the operators and spies, would they have the freedom to include such judgments in the President’s Daily Brief ?
Radicalization does not occur in a vacuum. It’s often a response to specific policies that deprive citizens of their dignity, freedom, citizenship, and livelihood. It’s also a response to a recruiter or proselytizer spouting a specific interpretation of religion that condones violence in the name of religious “jihad.”
Although policymakers rely on spies to inform them of their sources, they must turn to analysts to explain why these countries pursue specific policies and for what end. This healthy interface between collectors and analysts is what George Tenet was referring to in his two-pronged mission of the CIA. And this is why the CIA was created in the first place.
As Director Brennan pursues his reorganization plan, he should make sure that analysts retain their rightful place in the new structure, particularly in the Middle East Mission Center. It’s imperative that he insists on analytic integrity and independence.
The Middle East, especially the Levant, is complex, fragile, and highly unpredictable. British and American spies in the 20th century created and toppled governments. They also advanced British and American economic and security interests in the region.
Yet, time and again they were stumped by unexpected developments, including popular revolts and regional wars. “Intelligence failures” and “lessons learned” became a common occurrence following such surprises as the Mosadeq government, the Iranian revolution, the October 1973 war, the assassination of Sadat, and the more recent Arab Spring.
Although the mission centers aim to capture terrorists and thwart terrorist groups, they should also embrace the need for long-term, strategic, and interdisciplinary analysis. Let’s hope John Brennan has these goals in mind.