Why you should care
Because the people who manage the spies are as important as the spies themselves.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Something big is happening at the CIA — and you probably have no idea.
On its face, most of what’s being done will sound pretty wonky and “inside baseball.” But what’s going on in the heart of the institution that defines American intelligence is, in fact, all about substance: improving and aligning the agency’s work with a changing world and with the rest of Washington’s national security establishment. And, crucially, the reorganization marks the agency’s adaptation to the nature of modern, interrelated threats from groups like the Islamic State.
What’s happening is this: The CIA is creating “Mission Centers,” which will focus on major subjects based on region, country or function — say, Asia or the Middle East; weapons technology or nuclear proliferation. These centers will put officers from different departments in the same room.
That may not sound revolutionary, but for more than six decades, the CIA — created in 1947 — was organized into four relatively separate departments: operations (recruiting spies, collecting intelligence), analysis (putting all the pieces together for the president and others), science and technology (devising gadgetry for spies and analysts — like “Q” in the James Bond movies), and support (everything from security to logistics to finance). Long ago, groups like operations and analysis were so separate, you’d have to go through a separate turnstile with a special badge to pass from one side to another. The groups had neither the same clearance nor the same culture.
Take the agency’s success in counterterrorism, where the operations officers and analysts have been integrated for years.
So it’s significant that a leader at the organization may now be able to “one-stop shop.” He or she can now ask, “How are we doing on Boko Haram?” or “What’s going on in Nigeria?” and a single Mission Center leader can provide the big picture — as well as the details.
This is a model that’s been in practice, to an extent, already. Take the agency’s success in counterterrorism, where the operations officers and analysts have been integrated for years. Analysts are responsible for knowing the big picture, so they can identify the gaps in our knowledge and target collection; their jobs are like assembling jigsaw puzzles, without the helpful guide of the image on the box. Their counterparts, operations officers, are on the ground; they know sources and the cultures intimately, and can speak authoritatively to the reliability of sources and the potential for gaining more information.
The two missions reinforce each other. While operations officers fed the agency many of the components essential for hunting down Osama bin Laden, it was the analysts who stitched together the pieces, developing a picture of bin Ladin’s courier network and assessing the features of the Abbottabad compound. It isn’t that such an operation would have been impossible before this integrated model, but it certainly would have progressed more slowly.
The new structure is also designed to align the agency’s leaders with counterparts elsewhere, and across the U.S. national security establishment. Mission Center chiefs, for example, will be the organizational equivalents of assistant secretaries for various regions at the State Department. They will also be like the U.S. military’s Combatant Commanders for various parts of the world, in whose organizations the military services have been integrated like this since a similar reorganization of the military in 1986: the Goldwater-Nichols reform. This parallelism should make interagency collaboration easier and help others understand how to navigate the agency better.
Two other aspects of the reorganization are noteworthy. The agency will create a fifth department — the Directorate of Digital Innovation — which will pull together nearly all the agency’s information technology and cybersecurity work. Digital science now affects every aspect of work and life. Intelligence officers today must deal with massive quantities of data, and without smarter information technology, they risk missing something important. Once, analyzing intelligence was about “connecting the dots.” But now it’s about not drowning in dots — and finding what scholars have called “the signals in all the noise.”
On top of all this will be another initiative, meant to respond to the fact that the CIA’s workforce is increasingly younger, thanks to the hiring boom after 9/11. These younger employees are eager for more variety in their assignments, more opportunities for training and learning throughout their careers. The program, which CIA Director John Brennan is calling a “Talent Development Center of Excellence,” is essentially a skills-building incubator. In the tradition of military training, the agency will be looking for more opportunities for employees to refresh their training and diversify their talents.
I believe these are all the right things to do. But the world of national security will not stand still. There will be no time for the anxiety and confusion that normally afflict institutions in the midst of big change — the questions of new rules, new supervisors and other mundane matters that many would not associate with the CIA. This means doubly challenging days are ahead for my old “company” — which I believe is up to the challenge.