A Blueprint for the Future: The CIA in 2021 and Beyond

As veterans of the CIA, with 46 years of experience in both operations and analysis, we believe that the CIA under a Biden administration or a second Trump term must quickly adapt to the unique challenges of 2021. Our collection and analytic priorities range from a pandemic that has killed more Americans than World War I and the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined; ongoing counterterrorist threats emanating from an unstable Middle East, South Asia, and Africa; unchecked nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea; and finally the continued rise of Russia and China as formidable powers that could pose a significant threat to the United States. During our careers at CIA there was a bumper sticker that made the rounds, which stated, “The World is at Peace Because the CIA is at War.” That notion certainly applies to the world today.

We start with the simple premise that the CIA is an indispensable institution based on its unique authorities and world-class capabilities in conducting human intelligence collection (HUMINT) and performing all-source intelligence analysis. The CIA is the gold standard in spotting, assessing, developing, recruiting, and running human agents, and there is simply no substitute for a human spy. Whether these human sources provide detailed, tactical information on terrorist cells’ plots to kill Americans; or from inside a prime minister’s office in a country with which we are negotiating a trade deal; or, perhaps, from inside the lab of a hostile State’s nuclear program, our agents inform us of the actions of our most dangerous adversaries and competitors. They are simply unmatched in providing both tactical and strategic warning that can save lives, billions of dollars in research and development costs, and inform our national security strategy.

With this in mind, we offer four basic prescriptions for the CIA that must be addressed under the next administration, no matter who wins in November.

First, the Agency has to restore its relationship with the president and congressional oversight committees. Speaking truth to power has been difficult with the Trump administration. The mere perception that the CIA’s message is being fudged to avoid presidential wrath is enough to cause grave damage to the Agency’s reputation as an honest broker of information. It also has caused significant internal dissension as the CIA workforce questions the objectivity of its senior leadership under this unorthodox president. This must change. Agency officers also want and value congressional oversight, aware that the more transparent they are with the oversight committees, the more Congress has their backs when things don’t go as planned.

Second, the Agency must refocus on its basics: collecting human intelligence and conducting analysis. There has been a marked increase in covert action programs under the Trump administration. Covert action—which is mandated by the White House and overseen by Congress—is an important part of the mission, too. And it should continue as a core CIA function when warranted, particularly in the counterterrorism arena. CIA must, however, take a harder look at the value of these programs as they have taken away focus and talent from other core analytic and operational missions. There also needs to be a deep-dive analysis of the outcomes from former CIA Director John Brennan’s modernization program that reorganized the Agency, merging together the operational and analytic units with sometimes unclear and confusing lines of command and control. Does a matrixed organization really work? If so, does the one that was developed work optimally?  Has there been a cost to tradecraft quality now that the deputy directors of analysis and operations no longer have the final say on work products going forward? If so, how does that get fixed?  What other hiring, promotion, and process tweaks might best serve the mission?

Third, CIA is woefully behind the private sector’s cutting-edge technology and ability to rapidly iterate. The Agency needs a better “front door” for technology firms to present their capabilities. Would a greatly expanded In-Q-TEL better position the Agency to more quickly harness new technologies? Are there more cases where buying off-the-shelf technology could speed the mission without damaging it? Are we confident that we are only building boutique, in-house solutions when nothing else is available? How do we defeat continuous, ubiquitous surveillance and conduct HUMINT operations? We believe that CIA must partner more closely and more meaningfully with the world-class experts in the private sector and academia to ensure it stays ahead of the state of play on this and other technology issues. And, we acknowledge the steep challenges of doing this with the difficulty of competing salary-wise with people who could otherwise make $400,000 a year out of college.

Fourth, the Agency is going to have to finally make peace with instituting remote work. The pandemic has demonstrated in spades that it’s just not feasible to work solely in secure spaces at U.S. government facilities. If Google and other high-tech firms can do it with all the very valuable IP they have to protect, surely there is some analogous effort the Agency could undertake to facilitate remote work when needed and is mission-appropriate. We cannot survive another situation like the pandemic, let alone a terrorist attack on the Washington, D.C. area, in which so many national security employees literally could not come to work, significantly hampering the Agency’s ability to carry out its mission. And smart counterintelligence practices suggest that going to work each day at the same location is not optimal. Earlier this year, the New York Times demonstrated what they could learn via geofencing CIA Headquarters, a stark reminder that technology has taken away much of our anonymity.

The CIA has been evolving continuously over the last 70 years. While it is not perfect and has had some notable fails, it has also had untold successes in the service of U.S. national security. While those who seek to defang or politicize the CIA risk making us weaker as a nation, strong presidential support of this kind of self-examination and reform could help Agency leaders and the CIA workforce better execute the critical missions they’ve been tasked to do in service of U.S. national security. 

About the Author(s)

Marc Polymeropoulos

Retired in June 2019 from the Senior Intelligence Service ranks at the CIA after a 26 year career in operational headquarters and field management assignments covering the Middle East, Europe, Eurasia, and Counter Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter @Mpolymer.

Kristin Wood

20 years at the CIA, served in the Director’s area and three Agency directorates—analysis, operations, and digital innovation, selected for the Agency's Senior Intelligence Service and finished her career at CIA as the Deputy Director of the Innovation & Technology Group at the CIA's Open Source Center