I was pleasantly surprised, and yet simultaneously trepidatious, to read in the Washington Post on November 19th that CIA Director John Brennan was considering sweeping organizational changes to the agency he heads. Let me start by saying that I am not one of those who thinks that the CIA is broken, partisan, or incapable of functioning in today’s chaotic and ever-changing world. You do hear those arguments — a lot — though not from me. I am probably what one would call in the intelligence business “biased,” given that I worked in the NCS. However, I strongly believe that the agency does good work, and is the premiere intelligence service in the world.
Having stipulated the latter claim, I also think the agency could do with a reorganization or modernization, along the lines reportedly being considered by Brennan. The Post reports that the director is considering reorganizing the agency along functional lines, or according to “issue areas.” In other words, Brennan reportedly seeks to reorganize the agency so that it operates much as the current “centers” do within the CIA. The latter are devoted to counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and counter-proliferation.
These cross-directorate centers bring together analysts from the Directorate of Intelligence — operations officers, collection-management officers, staff-operations officers, paramilitary case officers, and targeters from the NCS—support personnel from the Directorate of Support, and non-agency liaison personnel from across the U.S. government. All of these officers work against a single target (i.e., terrorism) and serve under a unified leadership that is mission-focused on a particular target set. In other words, the director of the Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) is in charge of the whole of CTC, and reports directly to the director of the CIA, much as a geographic commander-in-chief (CINC) in the military reports to the top military leadership.
In contrast, the rest of the agency is still broken up into regional divisions, which focus on various geographic areas of the world. So, in the Near East Division within the NCS, operations officers focus their efforts on Southwest Asia and North Africa. They are complimented by a Near East Division within the Directorate of Intelligence, in which analysts comb through the reporting coming out of the region to formulate finished intelligence. The two separate divisions within the two directorates report to separate leadership and do not co-locate or work together as seamlessly as do their counterparts in the centers. The chains of command are separate.
Some would argue with my points above, and would note that the analysts and operations officers in the geographical divisions do work extremely closely together—and they would be right, to a point. The geographical divisions simply do not function as cohesively, with their bureaucratic boundaries, as do the centers, which are less constrained by organizational borders.
What Brennan appears to be prescribing, according to The Post, is a reorganization of the entire agency, along the lines of the functional centers. For example, Brennan would oversee the formation of a newly created center focused on Southwest Asia/North Africa, the mission of which would be to collect and analyze intelligence on the geographical area. The staff would be comprised of the same mix of intra- and cross-agency personnel focused on the mission or target. Leadership of the Southwest Asia/North Africa Center would be a mix of NCS and DI personnel, as well as possibly NSA and military officials—all of whom would be mission-focused and working as a cohesive unit against the target set. Their director would report to the director of the CIA.
As an outsider looking in at the CIA now, I see this as a beneficial approach to intelligence collection and analysis, and one that has proven its worth, especially, in the successes of CTC and the Counter-Proliferation Divisions. Hence my pleasant surprise at this news. I believe this reorganization would breathe fresh air into the CIA and re-focus the agency against the most pressing challenges of our time. As a starting point, I would imagine the agency would look to the following as areas upon which to focus these new centers: China, Russia and the Russian sphere, the Korean Peninsula, Iran, Southwest Asia and North Africa, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and Central and South America.
My trepidation comes from what I suspect will be the inevitable pushback Brennan will experience in trying to make such a systemic change to an aging CIA. Simply put, entrenched bureaucracies are resistant to change. That is just a fact, and probably an understatement. That does not mean the agency leadership will not find its way forward after a healthy debate, and with the normal give and take of compromise. It simply means that it will be hard going to convince one of America’s most indispensable bureaucracies that it must adapt and change for the future.
I applaud John Brennan’s vision in trying to take the agency forward. All Americans should wish the agency well in renewing itself for the future. The global geopolitical chessboard is not getting any less complex, after all.
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