EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In addition to the threats posed by the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the international jihad movement, the US is also challenged by an emergent new cold war which pits the US and NATO against Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and their client states. If ever there was a need for relevant and timely strategic assessments that can be translated into policy options, the time is now. For the past two decades, however, CIA’s ability to collect and analyze complex strategic intelligence on key actors has degraded to an alarming level. CIA analysts no longer have the skills to conduct long-term strategic analyses – the very job for which the Agency was created. Instead, CIA is primarily focused on tactical counter terrorism operations, which it does very well, but these very specific tactical skill sets are quite different than those required for traditional strategic espionage operations and analysis. Unfortunately, at present, the CIA has a world-class counter terrorism capability, but can only provide policymakers with a superficial understanding of the world and its complex issues and actors. It is likely that the new cold war, as well as the international jihad movement will last for, at least, another generation, and the new administration that takes power in January 2017 will have to decide what kind of intelligence capability it requires. If the US is to resume its international leadership role, however, the choice cannot be between having a world-class counter terrorism capability and a world-class strategic espionage capability. The new administration will need both.
The Loss of CIA’s Strategic Intelligence Collection and Analysis Capability:
The decline of the Agency’s strategic collection and analysis capability began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. CIA was created to counter the strategic threat posed by the post-WWII rise of the Soviet Union, so, the demise of the Soviet Union removed the Agency’s raison d’etre, and it was forced to begin downsizing and reorienting personnel. The government, as well as politicians from both political parties were more than eager to spend the so-called “peace dividend”, the considerable amount of money that had funded CIA’s anti-Soviet Cold War operations, on their own pet projects. So, CIA stations closed all over the world, CIA’s most experienced case officers and analysts were offered “early out” bonuses in a massive downsizing, and fewer and fewer strategic analyses were written.
For a decade after the Soviet collapse, CIA drifted in search of a new mission, which it finally found after the 9/11 attacks – al Qaeda and counter terrorism. The Agency’s approach, however, wasn’t to add counter terrorism as one of its vital strategic missions, but to make counter terrorism its primary mission. More importantly, it didn’t attempt to strategically understand its new enemy. Rather, it chose a tactical approach adopting the military’s “find, fix, and finish” operational concept to kill or capture individual terrorists, but it never attempted to strategically understand the very engine that propelled al Qaeda and the international jihad movement – Salafi-jihadi ideology.
The Agency’s almost total focus on counter terrorism has had dire consequences for its charter as the nation’s premier civilian strategic intelligence agency according to former CIA director Michael Hayden, who expressed his concerns in a March 2016 interview with the Guardian:
- “It started while I was still in office. I began to notice a problem that the more time goes by, the more our focus on the war on terror has created deficits in other places. Since I have left, the deficit has only grown…We have become extremely focused on current threats and in dealing with them…Much of what we call ‘intelligence analysis’ currently done in American intelligence is focused on specific targets: trying to make sure no one boards a plane with a bomb, for example. There is a natural tendency to focus on the urgent, the immediate, and I do think it comes at the expense of the more long-term, strategic elements.”
Hayden hit the nail on the head when he briefed incoming CIA director David Petraeus telling him:
- ‘Dave, you realize the CIA’s never looked more like the OSS than it does right now? That’s good. It’s kept America safe. But, Dave, you’ve got to know we’re not the OSS. We’re the nation’s global espionage service and you need to remind yourself and the institution every day that it’s got this broader mission”
Hayden understands the absolute requirement to prevent another 9/11-type attack, but conceded that what concerns him most is what CIA is not doing – developing intelligence on the existential threats to the United States. He described these existential threats as:
“…states that are ambitious, fragile and nuclear. I put Iran and North Korea and Pakistan and even the Russians in there. Now if that heads south, that’s much worse…Now if you run the timeline out to the 10-year point, it’s China. I’m not saying China’s an enemy of the United States of America. I’m just simply saying that if we do not handle the emergence of the People’s Republic well, it will be catastrophic for the world.”
Hayden is not alone in expressing concern about CIA’s departure from its traditional mission. In March 2013, the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board issued a report that stated that the CIA and the Intelligence Community had neglected its coverage of vitally important strategic flashpoints such as the Middle East and China, opting to focus on “military support” operations instead. Its co-chairman David L. Boren stated that “The intelligence community has become to some degree a military support operation”, adding that the deployment of Agency personnel and resources to only counterterrorism assignments “needs to be changed as dramatically as it was at the end of the Cold War.” Worse, he described a generation of spies that no longer know how to do traditional spy work, stating “So far, nearly all of their experience has been in what I would call military support…Almost none of it has been in traditional intelligence-gathering and analysis.”
Senator Barbara Mikulski, a senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, pressed home the same points during her questioning of John Brennan at his Senate confirmation hearing as CIA director in 2013:
- “I have been concerned for some time that there is a changing nature of the CIA, and that instead of it being America’s top human spy agency to make sure that we have no strategic surprises, that it has become more and more, executing paramilitary operations…I see this as mission creep. I see this as overriding the original mission of the CIA…and more a function of the Special Operations Command.”
CIA’s degraded strategic analysis capability is also well documented in Congressional post-9/11 investigations. A now declassified Top Secret report issued in February 2002 by the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees’ Joint Inquiry (JI) found that:
- “Prior to September 11, the Intelligence Community’s understanding of al-Qa’ida was hampered by insufficient analytic focus and quality, particularly in terms of strategic analysis…These analytic deficiencies seriously undercut the ability of U.S. policymakers to understand the full nature of the threat, and to make fully informed decisions.”
And a report by CIA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), published in 2007, found that the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) was primarily tactical, stating:
- “…Before 9/11…the Center’s focus was primarily operational and tactical. While focusing on operations is critically important and does not necessarily mean that other elements of mission will be ignored, the Team found that this nearly exclusive focus – which resulted in many operational successes – had a negative impact on CTC’s effectiveness as a coordinator of IC counterterrorism strategy”
Also in 2007, John G. Heidenrich, a highly experienced intelligence analyst, issued a critique that couldn’t be more relevant to this paper. In The State of Strategic Intelligence: The Intelligence Community’s Neglect of Strategic Intelligence, published on CIA’s website, he announced that:
- “During the past decade and a half, since the Cold War, the production and use of strategic intelligence by the United States government has plunged to egregiously low levels. This decline is badly out of sync with the broader needs of the republic, fails to meet the nation’s foreign policy requirements, ill-serves the country’s many national security officials, and retards the developing prowess of its intelligence analysts.”
Of particular importance, however, is a report published in January 2010, by then Major General Michael T. Flynn, in his capacity as the intelligence czar for all intelligence in Afghanistan – the CJ-2 for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). His highly critical assessment of the performance of CIA and the intelligence community in the active war zone was stunning. In Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, he opened by summarizing the assessment with this scathing proclamation:
- “Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-makers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.”
Perhaps most enlightening from the perspective of this paper, are the adjectives the General used to describe the American intelligence officers about whom he is writing: “Ignorant”, “hazy”, “incurious”, and “disengaged” – these characteristics are the absolute antithesis of a professional intelligence officer and show how far US national strategic intelligence analysis capability has fallen. There can be no more serious indictment of an American intelligence agency than its irrelevance in an active war zone in which American men and women are daily paying the ultimate price.
The Emergent New Cold War:
Unfortunately, Hayden’s “ambitious, fragile, and nuclear” states are already on the move, but his timeline for problems with China has moved-up considerably. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea and their client states now comprise a bloc pitted against the US and Europe in an emergent new cold war, which appears to be deepening on a weekly basis.
In January 2016, US European Command listed Russia as its number one security priority recommending a US military build-up in Europe, and approximately two weeks after that, Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev told the audience of the Munich Security Conference that “we have slid into a new period of cold war”. The Polish president agreed with him a few days later stating that Russia was fomenting the new cold war, and at roughly the same time, NATO Supreme Commander, American General Philip Breedlove announced that Russia poses a long-term threat to the US and its European allies.
In the past six months, reports of hostility, geopolitical competition, nuclear threats, and proxy warfare between the actors of the new cold war are overwhelming. In a development not even seen during the Cold War, Russian intelligence operatives have launched a campaign of thuggery to aggressively and physically assault American diplomatic personnel in Russia and throughout Europe. American military commanders have warned that Russian and Chinese nuclear submarines are challenging American power in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and the commander of Strategic Command warns that both China and Russia are developing advanced space weapons designed to be “disruptive and destructive counter-space capabilities” targeted at the US. Moreover, on numerous occasions, Russia and China have intentionally and aggressively used their fighter jets in provocative close intercepts of American military aircraft and warships. Russia, Iran, and Syria are jointly cooperating against US interests in the Middle East, which CIA director Brennan says is more unstable than at any time in the past 50 years, and the Iranian-backed radical Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, has threatened to target US troops in Iraq. In addition, China claims total sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and is creating man-made militarized islands throughout the area including installation of surface to air missiles in order to defend their claim, and it threatens military action against the US if it does so. Meanwhile, North Korea, China’s client state, frequently conducts illegal nuclear and ballistic missile tests and threatens other provocative military actions.
State of Play – CIA’s Clandestine Service:
CIA’s charter demands that it aggressively collect and analyze intelligence against each and every one of these strategic challenges in order to provide the president and his senior policymakers with the best intelligence with which to plan US strategic responses.
Unfortunately, that would require the reallocation of the majority of CIA’s manpower, budget, and planning that are now dedicated to its primary mission – terrorism. To make matters worse, CIA’s Clandestine Service is no longer a foreign service in the true sense of the term. Rather, its counter terrorism officers, most of whom have military special operations backgrounds, live in the US and are temporarily assigned overseas for four to six month tours, or periodically “surge” to foreign locations for special assignments, after which they return home. As one would expect, their expertise is on terrorist individuals and networks, weapons capabilities, how to integrate and work jointly with US and foreign military forces, and how to conduct clandestine military/paramilitary operations.
In 2005, new CIA director Porter Goss experienced this dilemma first hand. In a speech he gave to CIA personnel, he admitted that CIA’s clandestine service was no longer a global service with deep experience overseas, but a US-located pool that would occasionally “surge” abroad on temporary assignments. In the speech, he explained to his clandestine service officers why they needed to actually live and serve in foreign countries:
- “I have talked much about Field forward. You cannot understand people overseas, much less influence them, from Langley. You cannot develop deep and trusting relationships with individuals and with governments overseas by flying in and flipping out a U.S. passport. We are working to change the ratio so that we have more of our case officers out in the field under new kinds of cover in places where they can do what they need to do for us…. “Surging” CIA officers instead of having an established presence, an expertise, and developed relationships at hand, is a poor formula, in my opinion. When I say we need to be global, this is an admission that we are not in all of the places we should be. We don’t have this luxury anymore.”
The Agency has been able to sustain its counter terrorism orientation from 9/11 until now, but the targets listed above will require vastly different “old-school” skill sets and expertise. In the espionage arena, case officers with language capability live and work abroad where they spot, assess, develop, recruit and clandestinely run long-term penetration assets of foreign governments in order to discover their strategic plans and intentions. This approach requires an in-depth knowledge of the country’s customs and culture as well its geopolitical history, which normally comes from years of experience on the ground, experience that CIA’s counter terrorism operators don’t have. Cold wars, by their very definition, lack open hostilities between the main actors, so military skill sets and weapons capabilities, except in very unique circumstances, are of little use.
The current administration was not concerned with developing a world class espionage capability because it was dedicated to withdrawing from the world stage and concentrating on its domestic agenda. However, given the fact that the last cold war lasted for 50 years, it is likely that the new cold war will last a long time, as will the international jihad movement, so the next administration will have to deal with these realities. If it desires to resume America’s leadership role on the world stage it will require world-class capabilities in both espionage and counter terrorism.
The requirement for a world-class strategic espionage and analysis capability is absolutely clear – as the leader of the free world the new president must understand the world he leads in all of its complexity, but he must especially understand his strategic enemies who are attempting to defeat him.
In what organization this rejuvenated capability should reside, however, is not so clear. As the experience of director Porter Goss reveals, CIA may not be the best location.
Brian Fairchild was a career officer in CIA’s Clandestine Service. He has served in Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and Afghanistan. Mr. Fairchild writes periodic intelligence analyses on topics of strategic importance.