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Obama’s Militarization of CIA

April 3, 2015

One of the standard tropes about the Central Intelligence Agency, and the whole Intelligence Community, in recent years is that CIA has become excessively militarized since 9/11. To meet the needs of the War on Terror, the story goes, Langley ditched conventional espionage and analysis in favor of drones and paramilitary operations that pleased the White House — especially when George W. Bush lived there — at the expense of traditional CIA missions.

Like all enduring myths, there’s more than a little truth to all this. There’s no doubt that, in response to 9/11, CIA’s counterterrorism mission, which was awfully important before the Twin Towers fell (few remember that then-Director George Tenet told the Agency it was “at war” with Bin Laden after Al-Qaida’s 1998 East African embassy bombings), became even more so mid-morning on September 11, 2001. CIA got into the killing business in a serious way, in many places, developing a close-to-seamless relationship between itself, NSA, and the military’s spooky Joint Special Operations Command to hunt down terrorists worldwide.

This represents the most impressive secret killing machine in military history, with lethal snake-eaters guided by real-time, precise intelligence, and one which President Obama especially has not been squeamish about using. This militarization of CIA has led to criticism of the Agency from outsiders, many of whom didn’t like CIA anyway and really don’t like it when it has its own drones and special operators. They have some valid points to make, not least that years of prioritizing the counterterrorism mission has cost the Agency some capabilities in more traditional espionage and analysis, particularly because Langley’s best and brightest, as always, wanted to be where the action is — that’s the path to promotion and secret fame — and eschewed “legacy” missions in favor of killing bad guys in tandem with JSOC. Rising stars have flocked to the Agency’s Counterterrorism Center — led since 2006 by “Roger,” a convert to Islam (he has a prayer rug in his office), who looks like an undertaker but whose dedication to the mission is legendary — since that’s CIA’s pointy spear. Needless missteps that have gotten CIA officers killed thanks to sloppy tradecraft are grist to the mill of “too-much-CT” criticism.

However, it’s easy to overstate all this. CIA has kept on doing all its traditional missions since 9/11. Spies and analysts have been rolling along, doing what they’ve done since the Agency was established in 1947. Outside critics often miss the big picture, as I’ve noted before, and few journalists and academics have much “feel” for how CIA and the whole IC actually operate. It all looks rather different when you’re inside the bubble.

It’s disappointing that hardly any commentators have noted that CIA is currently being taken down a path of real militarization. The major reforms recently proposed by Director John Brennan are causing serious bureaucratic churn out at Langley. Brennan, using the highly successful Counterterrorism Center (CTC) as a model of how to fully integrate case officers and desk-bound analysts, wants to fundamentally transform CIA by creating a series of mission centers that will bring the spooks and geeks together in one big happy intelligence family.

There are many reasons to be skeptical. First, Brennan, a skilled politician who has Obama’s ear, adheres to the view that what ails CIA are “stovepipes” — what cynics term “cylinders of excellence” — that separate the spooks (the Directorate of Operations or DO) and the geeks (the Directorate of Intelligence or DI). Breaking the 1947-era china, then, will fix all this, or so the theory goes. This seems unlikely, given the IC’s spotty history of reorganizations. Moreover, the differences between the DO and the DI, which can create friction, are mainly due to the very different personality types that occupy them. Besides, few care to note that the CTC, Brennan’s model for CIA integration, actually belongs to the DO.

Brennan’s reorganization plan recasts the Agency along the lines of the U.S. military, where the armed services are the force providers but operations are placed in the hands of the joint Combatant Commands. In this concept, for instance, the DO will train up case officers, then send them to mission centers to do their job. This model, which copies how the Pentagon does business, represents a far greater militarization of CIA than anything else since 9/11, or in the Agency’s entire history. Yet hardly any outsiders have noticed this, much less commented on it.

Many spooks are none too happy about Brennan’s reorganization since they believe it will reduce the DO’s ability to control espionage operations, which seems to be a safe assumption, and what the director actually intends. As a sop, the DO got its old name back — it was rebranded as the National Clandestine Service in the post-9/11 reforms, for no particular reason — while the DI will be renamed the Directorate of Analysis. However, the discomfort in spook circles was serious enough that the Deputy Director for Operations, the mighty DDO, announced his retirement rather than preside over changes that many think equal disbanding the DO, de facto.

The outgoing DDO, Frank Archibald — Langley never admitted his true name but it was outed in the media years ago — was a career case officer and a former Marine with extensive experience in covert action and tours with the Special Activities Division, the CIA’s in-house snake-eaters. The paramilitary SAD, which has expanded enormously since 9/11, has been a focus of criticism by outsiders as its relationship with JSOC has grown exceptionally close.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that Archibald’s replacement as DDO is “Mike” — another former Marine and veteran paramilitary operator whose last job was the chief of SAD. Brennan leapfrogged over several more senior DO officers to elevate “Mike” to the top spy job, so the intent is clear, as the new DDO is known to be a “team player” regarding the nascent reorganization of the Agency.

Recasting CIA along Pentagon lines and putting a hardcore snake-eater in charge of remaking the DO sends a strong message that Brennan, and therefore Obama, think a more military-like Agency is what the country needs. This, to be charitable, is a debatable point, not to mention something that Congress should be discussing.

It doesn’t help that the media is silent about the implications of all this. Like so many things, the voices that waxed hysterically when Bush was said to be militarizing CIA are quieter when Obama does that, and more. This follows the usual pattern in Washington, DC. CIA involvement in extraordinary renditions — the bureaucratic term for kidnapping terrorists abroad — generated massive media attention during Bush’s second term, yet not much since, while hardly anybody cares to note that the policy actually commenced in 1995, under President Clinton, with the abducted terrorist being executed. Like so many things, it seems to be different when Democrats do it.

Based on the IC’s history, it feels safe to predict that Brennan’s far-reaching reorganization will cause years of churn out at Langley, and eventually there will be a re-reorg to undo these deep organizational changes when they turn out to have created more problems than they solved. That do-over will be the task of the next director, and will be handled tactfully, once Brennan has gotten his Medal of Freedom and his book deal. In the meantime, CIA personnel will do their best to complete their mission, as they have done every day for nearly seven decades.

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