Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan has convened a panel to consider Agency reorganization. The central issue is whether CIA analysts should be more operationally integrated with Clandestine Service officers, but reform might also include creating new staffs operating independently of the geographical divisions that have traditionally run the spies. China, might, for example, become a separate hybrid intelligence collection and analysis center divorced from East Asia Division.
Since its founding in 1947, the Agency has maintained a firewall between operations and analysis, though the rise to prominence of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), as well as special staffs dedicated to counter-narcotics and nonproliferation, has broken down that barrier. CTC and the issue-oriented staffs have included not only analysts but also law-enforcement representatives from the FBI and Secret Service. In theory everything is shared, and the model is considered to be successful, fueling the drive to replicate it.
To be sure there is a cultural divide within the Agency, with ops officers frequently regarding analysts as out-of-touch eggheads while the analysts reciprocate by seeing case officers as psychopathic cowboys, but there are good practical reasons for separating analysts from spies.
When I was about to go to Europe as a CIA case officer in the 1970s, I sought a meeting with the lead analyst on European socialist and communist parties, as I knew little about the factions and players in such broadly based movements. His insights were astonishing and helped greatly in preparing me for my assignment, but there was hell to pay on both sides of the CIA bureaucracy over the breach in protocol. We persevered, but I always thought afterwards that there was some possibility that I had largely adopted his point of view, which might have distorted my own thinking when confronted by a very different reality on the ground.
Contamination of the intelligence product can develop in both directions, with the spies influencing how the analysts judge the information that they receive and the intelligence collectors in turn becoming too responsive to what the consumers want. Working closely together encourages tunnel vision, reducing the likelihood that the prevailing groupthink will be challenged, as both analysts and spies can become obsessed with secondary targets and issues. The current system provides a degree of separation and a second pair of eyes that can prevent such an occurrence.
And then there is the issue of potential politicization, which is likely where Brennan comes in. If a new center were to be focused on Iran, for example, would the analysts, who work closely with the consumers in the White House and Congress, pressure the intelligence collectors to focus on what is of interest to the politicians? Responding to consumer expectations might well mean looking only for information that supports administration or congressional perceptions.
Intelligence is basically fungible, and you can pretty much find what you want to find if you try hard enough, but it is essential to have a measure of separation built into the system to provide checks and balances against politicized judgments dominating the process.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.