Can An Insider Save CIA From Itself?

As confirmation hearings loom for Gina Haspel to be director of CIA, the focus has understandably been on what actions she might have taken in the Agency’s enhanced interrogation program and what moral message her confirmation would send.

It is a fair and necessary debate. My focus, however, is on the career employees at CIA, and particularly those who are stationed around the world running operations to collect intelligence. The past decade and a half has decimated the Agency’s spying capabilities. As a former CIA officer, I wonder if Haspel’s operational experience can repair the damage and get the CIA spying again.

For the record, I won’t vouch for Haspel’s character or quality as an intelligence officer. I never worked with her, never met her, and cannot pass judgment on what kind of intelligence officer she is or any actions she might or might not have taken.

But I do believe only an insider can understand the subtleties that brought our premier spy agency to the brink of paralysis.

The CIA has three main missions: to collect intelligence, to provide all-source analysis, and to run covert action. Internal changes that began after 9/11 and culminated with then-Director John Brennan’s reorganization in 2015 have gutted the Agency’s ability to perform the first of those missions.

Our country is entrenched in a never-ending war on terror, is grappling with how to contain the nuclear programs of both North Korea and Iran, and is playing catch up after Russia ran a massive intelligence operation against our democracy, and those are only the highlights of our national security challenges. Yet the CIA’s ability to perform one of its core functions is lacking. If there are no operations to collect intelligence, there is no intelligence to analyze and thus no analysis to inform policy making. This hurts our national security.

In many ways, the Agency is still struggling to find its footing after 9/11. After what was termed “an intelligence failure,” the Agency put itself through two reorganizations to manage its ever-expanding mandate. Yet the CIA has struggled with one major issue: how to measure success. Over the years, Agency managers, often with help from outside consultants, have implemented a number of bureaucratic processes and metrics in an effort to measure what the Agency was achieving. They could measure the number of plots foiled, the amount of money spent, the amount of information collected, and the number of reports written. But they never managed to define a way to measure the value of the intelligence collected.

Instead, more information became the goal. The value of the information was secondary. The result has been a lot of paper pushing. Intelligence officers are increasingly stuck at their desks filing paperwork. A lot of process gives the impression that a lot is happening, but with scrutiny, it becomes clear there isn’t always a lot of substance.

One of the longer-term consequences has been the degradation of officers’ tradecraft abilities. While we were measuring success based on how many people we sent to Iraq or how much paper officers could exchange with allied partners, the Agency churned out young officers who could wear a flak jacket in Baghdad but couldn’t run a surveillance detection route anywhere else.

Another consequence has been the consolidation of decision making at headquarters. Increasingly, headquarters-based officers are making operational decisions, even though field officers are the ones who must face the consequences of those decisions. It is a fine line to walk, to be sure. A certain amount of deconfliction and bureaucratic process will always be necessary. But no field officer should have to wait for approval from thirty-two people in Washington before making a phone call to a potential source. The process can hurt operational momentum and smother operations before they can produce anything of value.

Haspel is an operations officer by training. According to a timeline of her career released by CIA, she has done seven overseas tours—including two in a traditional case officer position and five as deputy chief or chief of station—plus several temporary duty assignments in the field. She knows how it feels to sit at a rendezvous point counting through a minutes-long window, heart beating in her throat, wondering if her source is late or dead. That’s a rite of passage that has likely earned her some trust from operations officers who dislike outsiders who try to tell them how a spy operation should be run. They’ll be looking to see if she plans to return a modicum of operational control to the field and give case officers a boost.

Having moved up through the system, Haspel knows what needs to be changed to get the Agency running real operations again. I’ll be watching her testimony to see if indeed she wants to change it.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) 

About the Author(s)

Alex Finley

Former officer of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, where she served in West Africa and Europe. She is the author of Victor in the Rubble, a satire about the CIA and the War on Terror. Follow her on Twitter (@alexzfinley).