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Fix The CIA - Before It Is Too Late
A recent top-secret cable sent by CIA Headquarters to its field stations apparently warned in stark terms of the loss of a substantial number of assets. In particular, the message focused on issues with the secure handling of sources and apparent errors made by CIA case officers that had led to the compromise of their sources. If true, this news ought to alarm every American, and drastic, corrective action ought to be taken immediately.
CIA is taking a lot of hits these days. It should. Its leadership has gone dangerously astray and gotten involved in domestic political matters which should never be the province of a foreign intelligence organization. This does not change the fact that the CIA is vital to our national security.
Our southern border is effectively non-existent. Anything and anyone can come across that imaginary line at any time. It could be a team of suicide bombers. It could be a crew with a “dirty bomb” already built in the back of a panel truck. It might be a half dozen individuals already infected with a highly communicable disease that will make COVID look like a walk in the park.
Hollywood would have you understand that all sorts of high-tech gear and “gee whiz” gizmos will allow us to detect such threats and prevent catastrophe. I wish that were true. It is not. One of the best ways to tell us about an attack ahead of time is going to be reporting from a human source with the right access.
Unfortunately, the CIA – whose bread and butter is recruiting and running human sources – has been getting worse at its trade for some time now. No corrective action has been taken. No one has been held accountable.
On September 11, 2001, three airliners commandeered by Al Qaida terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The CIA, created in the aftermath of World War II to ensure there would never be another Pearl Harbor had failed in its primary duty. It had allowed another surprise attack on our soil. Thousands died.
Not a single CIA officer was fired. None of the leaders in place on that date – the men and women whose job it had been to keep the midnight watch and provide the critical warning of an impending attack – faced any consequences whatsoever.
We launched the War on Terror with the exact same crew that had been in place on September 10th.
On December 30, 2009, a suicide bomber effectively blew the CIA’s Khost Base off the map. Seven valuable intelligence officers died. A number of them were close friends of mine.
These men and women died as the result of a series of grotesque errors that literally boggle the mind. Without getting lost in the details of sources and methods, suffice it to say that all of these brave officers died due to staggering incompetence. And, yet, no one was held responsible.
A lengthy after-action review was conducted. It was acknowledged that many errors had occurred at many levels. And, then it was decided. There were so many people at so many levels that were guilty of negligence that the only thing to do was – do nothing. No one would be relieved. No one would be fired.
We would move ahead with the same team in place that just got a whole shop annihilated.
The truth is that the CIA has calcified from the risk-taking organization it was in its youth into a large, rigid bureaucracy in which more emphasis is placed on process than on mission accomplishment. Senior officers are not selected based on performance in the field, derring-do or effectiveness. They are selected based on political considerations, and most of them do their best to spend the bulk of their time standing around the flagpole in Northern Virginia, not down range.
Richard Harris, who wrote a history of the OSS, had this to say about the state of the CIA a number of years ago.
“ OSS was more than a little wacky. But underlying the wackiness was a sustaining “spirit” that had already begun to disappear in the 1960’s when I served my federal peonage emptying classified wastebaskets. Without that spirit, what is left is a CIA that suffers from bureaucratic hardening of the arteries. Even the best of secret servants would be hampered by a pervasive culture of inertia, lack of imagination, smug self-satisfaction, and that infectious curse of the bureaucratic mandarin, the incessant need to CYA: “Cover Your Ass”.
The problem has only gotten worse. Espionage is a hard business. If you want to be good at it you need to start by recruiting the right, eclectic group of individuals. Then you need to train them well, season them appropriately and employ them in a flat, flexible structure that encourages imagination and audacity.
Find the people who want to steal the crown jewels. Teach them how to do it. Give them the freedom to create and improvise. Then demand results.
In place of that creative, nimble, aggressive organization we have now a ponderous, bureaucratic behemoth dominated by individuals who have no idea how to recruit a source much less keep one alive on the streets of Beirut or in the mountains of Kurdistan. They are great at PowerPoint and holding meetings. They don’t know a whole lot about operations.
The world is only becoming more dangerous. The threats are only becoming more severe. We have neglected fixing CIA for a very long time. If we don’t move fast, we may pay a horrible price for that neglect.
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