Man Hunters.

Before the Second World War the United States possessed intelligence-gathering organizations that were derisory in comparison to those of the great powers. The War Department gathered information on the military capabilities of foreign states from military attaches; the State Department reported on political and economic developments; both War and State maintained signals intelligence (code-breaking) offices. However, the US possessed no “secret intelligence service” equivalent to the British MI-6 or the action services of other countries. During the Second World War, the US sought to make good this deficiency with the temporary Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After the Second World War, America’s new global role and the Cold War demanded an enhanced intelligence-gathering capability. In 1947, Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fill this role. Filled with wartime OSS veterans, the new agency had a predisposition to clandestine action, not just to intelligence gathering. Confronting the brutal Soviet KGB around the globe, CIA played a rough game. Eventually, CIA fell afoul of changed national values. The Church Committee hearings led to restrictions on CIA action like assassinations. From the mid-Seventies onward, CIA concentrated conventional intelligence-gathering and analysis.

Then came 9/11.[1] The scales fell from their eyes, or they had a Road to Damascus experience, or whatever other Biblical reference occurs to you. An executive order from President George W. Bush overturned the limits on action. CIA agents lashed out at Al Qaeda operatives wherever they came within reach. Some were killed, either by a rapidly-expanded paramilitary arm of CIA or by drone strikes. Some were captured and subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” In 2003, the US attacked Iraq, only to see early triumph turn into a gory insurgency that seemed to have no end. Soon, there came a backlash against both big wars and the use of torture.[2] A new consensus emerged: killing terrorists is acceptable, but torturing them is not. Certainly, it is less likely to get people keel-hauled by a Congressional committee. According to Mark Mazzetti, CIA “went on a killing spree.” Drones and commandos struck Islamists[3] in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. While banning the use of torture, President Barack Obama has continued all the other programs begun by the Bush administration.

Arguably, the results have been as disastrous, if not quite so dramatic, for American intelligence as for the Islamists hit by Hellfire missiles launched from Predator drones. In an Econ 101 analysis, multiple needs compete for finite resources. Resources (money, manpower, attention) spent “man-hunting” can’t be devoted to other needs. Yet the US faces multiple current, latent, and potential threats.

The CIA already suffered from maladaptation between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Its budget fell as part of the “peace dividend”; spending on new technologies further reduced the resources for human intelligence-gathering and analysis; and its former strengths in Soviet and East European issues could not easily be shifted to new areas. (Pashto and Polish both begin with a P, but there the similarity ends.)

America’s political culture is having a hard time discussing the choice between long-term trends and immediate action. The recent murder of five servicemen by what looks like an Islamist “lone wolf” will only make “man-hunting” seem more vital than ever.

[1] Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[2] In 2004, CIA’s Inspector General condemned some of the practices as “unauthorized” and “inhumane.”

[3] Including the occasional American renegade who declined to surrender himself to more formal American justice.

What did we learn from the Report of the 9/11 Commission? I

By the end of the 20th century the CIA was “an organization capable of attracting extraordinarily motivated people, but institutionally averse to risk, with its capacity for covert action atrophied, predisposed to restrict the distribution of information, having difficulty assimilating new types of personnel, and accustomed to presenting descriptive reportage of the latest intelligence.” (p. 137.)

How had this situation come into being?

First, “although covert actions represent a very small fraction of the [CIA’s] entire budget, these operations have at times been controversial and over time have dominated the public’s perception of the CIA.” (p. 126.) Furthermore, whenever covert actions turned into highly public exploding cigars, the Presidents who ordered them have left CIA officers to carry the can. The CIA became very reluctant to engage in them. (p. 132.) Eisenhower’s initiation of and JFK’s approval of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs scheme offered an important early example of this behavior. Allen Dulles lost his job as head of CIA and Dick Bissell got fired. It would not be the last time. The Global War on Terror involved “extraordinary rendition,” “secret prisons,” and torture, all under presidential order. Now there is a public shaming of the CIA officers who acted on those orders.

Second, Counter-Intelligence chief James J. Angleton’s long obsession with a Soviet “mole” in the CIA, then the Aldrich Ames case in 1994, left the Agency security conscious almost to the point of paralysis. The CIA disliked everything that it heard about the then-new Internet communications and it established almost impossible barriers to the recruitment of agents who could be used against foreign terrorist groups. (pp. 134-135.)

Third, intelligence agency budgets were sharply reduced from 1990 to 1996, then kept flat from 1996 to 2000. Policy-makers insisted upon ever more-robust technological capabilities in intelligence gathering, without providing additional funds to procure them, so intelligence agencies cannibalized both human intelligence and analysis to get the money. (p. 136.)

In the Clandestine Service the budget cuts of the Nineties meant the loss of many experienced officers and the closure of facilities abroad. The CIA adapted to this by relying heavily upon foreign intelligence service liaison, and by “surging” (running around putting out brushfires instead of covering regions with experts).

After the end of the Cold War, the Directorate of Intelligence’s “university culture with its version of books and articles was giving way to the culture of the newsroom.” (p. 133.) That is, analysts began churning out descriptive reports on more subjects based on a shallower understanding than had been previous reports.

People recognized that a problem existed at CIA. In 1997 George Tenet was appointed DCI with the mission of rebuilding the agency. In 1998 and 1999 two panels (the second chaired by Donald Rumsfeld) that evaluated the CIA warned of “the dispersal of effort on too many priorities, the declining attention to the craft of strategic analysis, and security rules that prevented adequate sharing of information.” (p. 134.)   Tenet obtained expanded budgets for all aspects of the CIA. (pp. 512-513.) In 1998 Tenet persuaded both Congress and the Clinton administration to begin rebuilding the Clandestine Service, but the 5-7 years of training needed to bring a new officer up to full speed meant that it would be 2005 or 2006 before the first recruits were of any real use to anyone. (p. 133.)

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004).