The excellent covert operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was flawless and awe inspiring. It has transcended the annals of intelligence operations to become a historic event, and it will rightfully be recounted in numerous articles, books, movies, and television specials. We should all be proud of this operation.
Unfortunately, as you will see documented below, this operation is also the latest proof that the CIA is no longer a strategic intelligence agency, as it was created to be, but has been transformed into an organization that primarily provides tactical “current” intelligence as well as technical support to the U.S. military.
Why is this a problem? Because tactical intelligence is limited in its focus, time, and geographical location and serves only to support specific one-off military operations on the battlefield.
Strategic intelligence, on the other hand, is the multi-disciplinary in-depth knowledge required for policymakers to create national or regional strategies.
So how was the CIA transformed from a strategic to a tactical organization?
The CIA was created by the National Security Act of 1947 to be the premier strategic intelligence agency for the U.S. government. Because its primary mission was to counter the Soviet Union’s global operations, multi-disciplinary strategic intelligence collection and analysis was routinely conducted during the Cold War.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the CIA suffered a major identity crisis and it embarked on a mission to find a reason to exist. This is not something I read in a book; this is something I directly experienced. I was a career CIA clandestine service officer during the Cold War, and my 20-year tour of duty, which ended in 1995, covered this transition period.
Having lost the Soviet Union as its raison d’être, the CIA could no longer sustain its large budgets and, for the first time in history, Congress demanded to know the details of CIA’s clandestine budget and even required the Agency to detail how many spies it had, how much each spy cost, and what they had done for the Agency in the last six months.
Congress was not pleased with the Agency’s answers to these questions. This resulted in drastic budget cuts, the termination of the majority of its foreign spies, and a mass exodus of its trained and experienced clandestine service officers, which was encouraged by the Agency with offers of “early out” bonuses.
Because of the drastic reduction of personnel and the loss of its global target, numerous CIA stations were closed, and because few of the remaining clandestine service officers were recruiting foreign spies, the Agency opted to obtain its intelligence through liaison relationships with friendly foreign intelligence services. In effect, the CIA outsourced intelligence collection to foreign governments.
After foundering for the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Agency finally found its new global mission on September 11, 2001: al-Qaeda and the global jihad. From that point on, it has virtually stopped conducting strategic human intelligence (HUMINT) collection operations as well as strategic analysis.
But don’t take my word for it; take a look at the documentation below that speaks directly to the lack of strategic capability and the need to recreate a strategically focused clandestine service.
In 2001, the serious deficiencies of the clandestine service were revealed officially in the 9/11 Commission Report which stated that the clandestine service required no less than a transformation.
In its recommendations, the 9/11 Commission specifically stated that the CIA director should focus on:
…transforming the clandestine service by building its human intelligence capabilities…(and) stressing a better balance between unilateral and liaison operations. (Author’s note: “unilateral operations” are secret and compartmented operations that the CIA completely controls and conducts by itself).
By February 2004, the Agency had not enacted the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. Faced with growing responsibilities in the war on terror, CIA Director George Tenet testified before Congress that budget cuts under the Clinton administration had adversely impacted the clandestine service. While he assured the committee that the CIA was attempting to rebuild its clandestine capability, he speculated that it would take “an additional five years of rebuilding our clandestine service” before it could adequately fight the war on terror.
In 2005, the drumbeat continued, this time by CIA Director Porter Goss in a speech to CIA employees. Showing how far the Agency had gotten from running its own operations, Goss indicated that the Agency relied on intelligence from liaison relationships, but clearly stated that the CIA would no longer rely solely on this intelligence, but would have unilateral operations “return” to the Agency as a main function:
As many of you know, I have been very pleased to spend a lot of my time and attention on a multitude of liaison relationships. These are important opportunities and I will continue to do so. But, without ignoring our vital liaison relationships and partners, we will not rely solely on this stream of intelligence to inform our policymakers. Unilateral operations will return to be part of the governing paradigm for the CIA.
Worse, at the very moment that Goss addressed his employees, the majority of his clandestine service officers were not living overseas as most Americans believe, but based out of headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Embarrassingly, Goss had to emphasize to CIA personnel the need for clandestine service officers to actually live abroad where they could gain an understanding of foreigners and their cultures, rather than being based in Langley and “surging” to hotspots on a temporary basis:
I have talked much about Field forward. You cannot understand people overseas, much less influence them, from Langley. You cannot develop deep and trusting relationships with individuals and with governments overseas by flying in and flipping out a U.S. passport. We are working to change the ratio so that we have more of our case officers out in the field under new kinds of cover in places where they can do what they need to do for us…. “Surging” CIA officers instead of having an established presence, an expertise, and developed relationships at hand, is a poor formula, in my opinion. When I say we need to be global, this is an admission that we are not in all of the places we should be. We don’t have this luxury anymore.
While Goss’ comments above addressed the Agency’s clandestine collection operations, another document published in 2005 revealed that the lack of strategic capability also permeates intelligence analysis. The document, titled Analytic Culture in the U.S. Intelligence Community and published by the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, addressed the many problems that prevent CIA intelligence analysts from writing strategic analyses, which the following quote zeroes-in on:
Our products have become so specific, so tactical even, that our thinking has become tactical. We’re losing our strategic edge, because we’re so focused on today’s issues.
In 2007, long-time intelligence analyst John G. Heidenrich tackled the problem head-on in The State of Strategic Intelligence: The Intelligence Community’s Neglect of Strategic Intelligence, in which he bluntly states:
During the past decade and a half, since the Cold War, the production and use of strategic intelligence by the United States government has plunged to egregiously low levels. This decline is badly out of sync with the broader needs of the republic, fails to meet the nation’s foreign policy requirements, ill-serves the country’s many national security officials, and retards the developing prowess of its intelligence analysts.
Finally, in Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, published in January 2010, Major General Michael T. Flynn, then the intelligence chief for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, bluntly critiqued the intelligence community’s myopic tactical focus on insurgent groups, and its almost complete lack of focus on the fundamental strategic questions required and sought by policymakers:
Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-makers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.
So, as you have seen above, the 9/11 Commission, two CIA directors, two CIA studies on intelligence analysis, and the ISAF chief of intelligence in Afghanistan all inform us that the CIA and the intelligence community are not conducting strategic collection and analysis.
This cannot stand, because, as satisfying and exciting as it is to witness a historic covert operation like the bin Laden mission, the fact is that without an in-depth, multi-disciplinary knowledge of the people and areas that are of strategic importance to the United States, our policymakers cannot develop national and regional strategies to support our vital interests, and, just like in Vietnam, the result will be that we will win all the tactical battles, but lose the war.