Sunday, August 28, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Regarding the CIA's latest self-assessment

Amy Zegart -- who is writing a book on intelligence reform and is's official go-to source on this issue -- e-mailed me her thoughts on the CIA's latest effort at self-criticism:

Say it ain't so.

The CIA has just finished an internal review of 9/11, and may be gearing up for disciplinary action against some former big wigs, including CIA Director George Tenet, Jim Pavitt, who headed the agency's spy branch, and Cofer Black, who used to run the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. I can hear the drums and chants already : "Hold them accountable!"

Let us leave aside for a moment the irony that the fate of these men now rests in the hands of Porter Goss, the current CIA chief who chaired the House Intelligence Committee before 9/11 -- and who was "shocked shocked" to discover so many failures in the agency he was so vigilantly overseeing. Let us also leave aside the fact that these guys don't exactly come across as the most sympathetic figures, slam dunking their way to presidential medals and all. The fact is that holding a few people responsible for the failures of 9/11 is comforting but dangerous. Comforting because it makes us feel safer that there's someone to blame. Dangerous because it leads us to believe that if only a few individuals had done their jobs better, 9/11 could have been averted. The reality is much worse: yes, individuals made mistakes. But it was the system that failed us. And until we fix these systemic problems, nobody should be sleeping well at night.

Case in point: why didn't the CIA watchlist Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, 2 of the 9/11 hijackers that first came to the attention of agency officials back in January 2000, when they attended a terrorist meeting described by one intelligence official as "the al Qaeda convention"? The simplest answer: keeping track of foreign terrorists had never been standard practice or a high priority. For more than 40 years, the Cold War had dominated both the thinking and operation of the CIA and the other agencies of the US intelligence community. When the Cold War ended and the threat changed, US intelligence agencies were slow to change with it. Before 9/11, in fact, there were no formal training programs or well honed processes for identifying dangerous terrorists and warning other US government agencies about them before they reached the US. CIA officers let Mihdhar and Hazmi into the country not because they failed at their jobs, but because they never considered watchlisting to be a part of their jobs.

CIA leadership could only do so much to fix these kinds of problems because they were decades old and built into the structure, fabric and thinking of the intelligence community. Tenet, for example, actually did try to improve longer-term, strategic analysis in the CIA's counterterrorism center before 9/11, but his efforts were doomed before they ever began. Three reasons explain why:

1) Location. When the Counterterrorism Center was created in 1986, it was housed in the Directorate of Operations, the CIA's spy branch, rather than inside the agency's analytic division. For analysts, this was like operating behind enemy lines. The Directorate of Operations was home for people who ran spies, stole secrets, and conducted clandestine operations, not for egghead analysts who sat in cubicles piecing together information about distant threats. Location ensured that the Counterterrorism Center would give short shrift to strategic analysis from day one.

2) Culture. Nowhere was the "need to know" and aversion to information sharing more deeply rooted than inside the clandestine Directorate of Operations. Clandestine officials for decades had viewed analysts with suspicion, even disdain. So deep was the divide between them and analysts that when the Counterterrorism Center was first created, clandestine officers assigned there requested additional safes and procedures to keep their information out of the hands of analysts working alongside them.

3) Career incentives. For analysts, the fast track to promotion required focusing on current intelligence and staying close to home. During the 1990s, the rise of 24 hour news cycles put so much pressure on analysts to provide current information, many joked that the CIA had become "CNN with secrets." For a savvy career minded analyst, the only thing worse than getting assigned to do longer term strategic analysis was getting assigned to do longer term strategic analysis outside the CIA's analytic branch--precisely what Tenet was trying to do in 2000 and 2001. Little wonder he found strategic analysis in counter-terrorism so weak, and why he struggled with such little success to fix it. After 9/11, the congressional intelligence committees found that on average, counter-terrorism analysts had less than half the experience of analysts in the rest of the CIA. Ironically, career incentives meant that the unit most in need of experienced analysts did not have them.

Tenet and company may not deserve any medals. But let's not kid ourselves: searching for a few bad apples will not fix what's wrong in US intelligence.

posted by Dan on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM


We may have to accept a certain amount of confusion at the transitions from one long-term threat to another, as long as the confusion doesn't continue indefinitely. I worry more about a deeper problem.

Intelligence analysis is always in something of a double-bind. The value of knowledge is inversely proportional to the length of the timeframe it covers. You want analysts to detect a nuke about to go off in an American city next month. On the other hand, the really dangerous threats are those that change the rules, and such threats require a longer-range and unconventional way of thinking to identify in advance.

The need is to do both timeframes well. But I wonder if this is practical to do in-house since the rule-changing threats are not as common. The CIA seems to recognize the need to draw on a wider circle of outsiders to think about the longer-term future. The merits and difficulties of this effort have not received the attention that I think they deserve.

posted by: David Billington on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

“Pour encourager les autres”.

posted by: Dave Schuler on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Tenet and company may not deserve any medals.

But he already got one last December.

This needs to be done for internal purposes as Dave notes. CIA personnel will not really see a reason to change until there are some consequences meted out. Then the career altering adjustments may begin. An absence of these has rendered NASA a fairly sick organization also. The Navy's policy, however individually unfair, of punishing captains whose ships run aground provides proper incentive and recognition of command responsibility. The CIA should follow suit.

posted by: Richard Heddleson on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I also think Ms. Zegart misses the point about accountability. You can't get systems and processes pointed in the right direction unless the people running them are pointed in the right direction, and that can't happen unless these people know that getting caught pointing in the wrong direction has consequences for them personally.

Scrupulous fairness to individuals -- the standard in most criminal investigations -- has less value here. Timeliness, on the other hand, has much more. "Disciplinary action" against a DCI who resigned a year ago, and almost four years after the 9/11 disaster? Nonsense. This would be no more than institutional ticket-punching, an opportunity for CIA to claim that it did too take action in response to intelligence failures, and perhaps for other institutions -- Congress, the White House -- to claim at some point that their pressure forced CIA to do something it would not otherwise have done.

The unfortunate fact is that as far as accountability is concerned -- the kind of accountability that could provide a spur to the institutional changes CIA may need -- the ship sailed some time ago. Identifying "a few bad apples" within six months or so after 9/11 might have had a salutary effect on the prospects for intelligence reform. It won't do any good now.

posted by: Zathras on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

There are no doubt lessons to be learned from the past, and we should. But I'm much more concerned about looking forward. There seems to be more attention being paid to the rearview mirror than to what's coming next. Changing institutional focus is difficult, but if the CIA (and other intelligence services) doesn't do a better job, it's not a question of if but when we'll be hit again.

posted by: Bob on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I agree that this report is probably too late and too little (in that order). But reforming the Agency so as to integrate the clandestine services (Directorate of Operations) into the 21st century Intelligence Community remains an urgent priority. The DO -- inventor of the dreaded ORCON caveat -- has a proprietary approach to the information sharing that will, absent reform, cripple our ability to turn secrets into useful knowledge.

posted by: Ralph Hitchens on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Put DOD in charge of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence de jure, not just de facto). Put the CIA in charge of weather intelligence in the South Pacific and limit it to that.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Ralph is right about the corporate and cultural mindset of CIA and specifically the DO regarding information sharing. After the 9/11 Commission report, it's still business as usual. Their lack of cooperation with other intelligence agencies are hampering the effective communications needed to preclude another 9/11. I hope the DNI will have the power needed to fix this problem.

posted by: DC Loser on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Creating new government agencies to take over some to most of the missions of dysfunctional older agencies is The American Way.

Let the CIA continue to be dysfunctional. Let its Directorate of Operations continue to be territorial. Just don't rely on them anymore for anything.

Which is why I favor limiting their jurisdiction to the South Pacific. And cutting their budget 5% a year for the next 30 years.

Just don't let them impede the Defense Department's takeover of all their other missions.

Not that this Admnistration or any successor will do anything of the sort until we're nuked at home.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Keeping an eye on the KGB and keeping an eye on Terrorists
is the exact same thing. NO difference.

Now just how good was the CIA in keeping in eye on
the KGB?

posted by: James on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

This was too little, WAY too late, but I'd be willing to overlook the CIA missing the transition from one paradigm to another - a lot of smart people did - were there not signs that things haven't improved much four years later. Examples that concern me:

(1) When Mahmud Ahamdinejad was elected president of Iran recently, the U.S. government spent the first week after asking whether or not he was involved in the embassy takeover in 1979. Now, this guy was mayor of Tehren and leader of the Qods Force, which coordinates Iran's terrorist ties. If the CIA genuinely didn't know who this guy was, and everything he had been doing over the year, that is really bad.

(2) Remember in January after the Iraqi elections how there was a flurry of articles about how State Dept. officials were questioning Shia political leaders about their ties to Iran? These were people with whom the U.S. had been dealing for years - we should have had a file on every significant figure in each party, how often they went to Iran, how many of their phone calls were there, etc. Or did the CIA know this and just not communicate this to State?

(3) Until Syria broke off cooperation recently, the CIA was depending on Syrian intelligence for help with al-Qaeda. This is the same government which was arranging for safe passage and logistics to terrorists to go to Iraq and kill Americans (and Iraqis).

It is not that it is not possible to build an effective human intelligence network and integrate it with the info gathered through electronic means. There are a number of examples of successful HUMINT operations. We just don't seem to have one ourselves.

posted by: Kirk H. Sowell on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]


It's not just the Executive Branch intelligence agencies. Congress is involved too, and that means grandstanding by Democrat incumbents for campaign contributions from their leftist base and more importantly, immunity from primary challenges.

Which means that any effective changes in the intelligence community must be shielded from that. This entails shifting Congressional oversight from the existing intelligence committees to the armed forces committees, whose members have a say in 50%+ of federal discretionary spending.

I.e., they are far less vulnerable to primary challenges and, as a rule, get more politically effective members (the guys who can shove their way closer to the financial teat). Additionally they tend to be highly adverse to actions which can get them kicked off the armed services committees, say by disclosing secret information.

So we have a convergence of interests in moving as much intelligence work as possible from the CIA to the armed forces.

Dan, Amy Zegart should pay close attention to the congressional oversight issue I describe here, especially how that relates to campaign contributions and potential primary challenges & relative immunity from them.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

I agree with Tom regarding Congress; we need less oversight from Congress, not more. Any chance that a CIA analyst, operative or interrogator could be hauled before congressional hearings would ensure that they would be thinking about that, not about doing their jobs.

posted by: Kirk H. Sowell on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

In my very limited experience with CIA material, there was always a tendancy to overvalue information from clandestine sources and undervalue that from public sources. I had a brief encounter with a KGB guy in the early 1980's and had the impression that they operated the same way.

Eventually, I stopped reading the CIA stuff because it was a pain to handle, couldn't be shared with anyone and because I got better and more up to date information from the Financial Times on the subjects I was interested in.

posted by: Former Treasury Guy on 08.28.05 at 10:56 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?