In CIA Director John Brennan’s recent speech and Q&A session at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), as well as in his recent address to agency personnel at CIA headquarters, the head of America’s leading human intelligence agency discussed the way forward for the agency, the grand restructuring of its workforce, and how it operates against the myriad challenges to American national security.

Brennan and his leadership team have turned to the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center (CTC) as the model for how the agency should structure itself to best carry out its role as America’s premiere human intelligence agency. It is a bureaucratic reorganization that was hinted at some months back, and described—and supported—by this author in a previous SOFREP article.

Brennan’s changes are in stark contrast to ideas presented by former Congresswoman Jane Harmon. In a recent piece in Foreign Affairs, she presented, frankly, a naive and sophomoric view of how the country’s intelligence agencies should operate and move forward into the future.

Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA before becoming its director under President Barack Obama, knows the agency and intelligence work intimately. He is not an outsider trying to force change on a recalcitrant workforce, but rather, a consummate insider trying to make his own organization better. Regardless, there will always be resistance to such a bureaucratic shakeup, as people are entrenched in their ways, and some genuinely believe that certain proposed changes might harm their organization.

Brennan’s plan is to oversee the creation of various ‘mission centers,’ based on the CTC model, which will replace the CIA’s traditional geographic divisions in an effort to “push decision-making lower down in the hierarchy.” This will allow those who focus daily on a particular mission (for example, counter-narcotics, counterterrorism, or counter-proliferation) to have a larger say in the execution of that mission.

As this author wrote previously, the ‘centers’ concept is a sound one, and a way for the agency to focus more effectively on its myriad missions. It has been proven remarkably successful, namely against al-Qa’ida in the years following 9/11. CTC has decimated the terror organization through a relentless pursuit by a cadre of officers spanning multiple divisions, directorates, and non-agency organizations.

Brennan noted at the CFR, additionally, how well CTC has facilitated the integration of the analytical and operational sides of the agency, post-9/11. At present, Brennan states, CIA analysis is driving collection, as well as covert action, much more so than it used to in years past. The agency’s analysts no longer solely produce finished intelligence products for policymakers, but rather inform CIA activities and operations in addition to informing policymakers. This is a new phenomenon, and a positive one. It allows for more refined and effective intelligence collection and covert action.

Brennan, furthermore, is seeking to migrate the CTC model to newer, more unique mission sets. One such area is the digital domain. Brennan ranks cyber security, along with terrorism, as one of America’s greatest modern-day challenges. The CIA’s new Directorate of Digital Innovation would be responsible not only ­for cyber-espionage and similar operations, but also for the security of the CIA’s internal email, for example. These are important areas in which the CIA’s past efforts have been scattershot at best.

Brennan went on in his talk at the CFR to note that the agency could not allow a post-9/11 focus on covert action/paramilitary operations to diminish the CIA’s other capabilities, and that a refocus on foreign intelligence gathering is also part of his planned changes at the agency. Brennan was careful not to diminish covert action, but rather noted that it is simply one tool in the toolbox, to be used in concert with more traditional collection and analysis. This is in stark contrast to what Congresswoman Harmon suggests below.

In this same vein, Brennan recently reestablished at the CIA, as part of his reorganization, a senior position to handle and manage foreign liaison relationships from a strategic level. Additionally, he commented on the agency’s return to a reliance on liaisons for the capture and interrogation of terrorism suspects, the subject of another SOFREP article.

Brennan recognizes the importance of working with liaisons, maintaining and nurturing those relationships, while at the same time not going so far as to place an inordinate amount of responsibility for our nation’s intelligence collection in the hands of foreign governments.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Congresswoman Harmon.

The Harmon model

In contrast to CIA Director Brennan, former congresswoman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harmon, provided a more flawed analysis of how the U.S. intelligence community should refocus for the future. In focusing on the CIA, Harmon suggests that human intelligence will decline in importance relative to open-source reporting, and that covert action should become the agency’s primary mission.

This is a fundamentally misguided prescription. While open-source reporting is important, and should (and, in fact, does) demand the focus of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, it should never be focused upon at the expense of collecting clandestine human intelligence.

The CIA’s primary mission has always been, and should continue to be, the collection of human intelligence that is impossible to acquire by any other means. The CIA must always strive to collect information on foreign governments and entities that is secret, previously unknown, and authoritative. In other words, the CIA must use spies to acquire secrets that other governments do not want us to know.

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These secrets, furthermore, by definition, no matter what anyone says, do not appear in open-source reporting. They simply do not. To claim that we can acquire the totality of what we need to know as a government by reading in open sources is wrong, and insufficient for the security of the country.

Nor should covert action, for that matter, supersede the collection of foreign intelligence as the agency’s primary mission. Harmon is right to point out that the CIA is very good at this covert action, but she fails to mention why that is. In her piece, Harmon cites journalist Michael Hirsh in noting that experts believe the CIA “may simply be much better than the military at killing people in a targeted, precise way—and, above all, at ensuring the bad guys they’re getting are really bad guys.”

It is due to the fact that the agency is so adept at running human sources that it is so good at covert action. Understanding this linkage is absolutely critical to understanding the nature of the CIA’s capabilities and focus. Simply stated, with regards to a targeted assassination program, for example, the CIA is so much more effective than the military because it knows who and what it is targeting, and hits its targets a majority of the time. This is only possible due to the collection of human intelligence.

This feat is not accomplished through a lexis-nexus search of newspaper articles in the open press, nor is it solely technical means that allow the agency to so effectively target individuals. Open-source reporting and technical collection will never give you all the information, nor the complete picture, nor do they guarantee that our government will acquire the secrets it needs to know to ensure our nation’s security.

Finally, with regards to reforming the CIA, Harmon suggests one more bad idea. In order to overcome the risk aversion of the American public in sending its sons and daughters to dangerous lands overseas to collect intelligence, and its antipathy to enhanced-interrogation programs, Harmon suggests:

“[The CIA] could outsource some human collection to friendly foreign intelligence services that are less risk averse and better culturally equipped, such as those in Israel, Jordan, and the United Kingdom. The CIA could also focus its own collection on directly supporting covert operations.”

It is a terrible policy prescription to outsource the collection of the most sought-after and sensitive clandestine information—information that could mean the difference between war and peace, and directly dictates American policy—to even our most reliable allies. No government can afford such a blindly naive course of action. At best, this information would be acted upon and filtered through our allies’ own national interests, which (shocker!) do not always align with ours. At worst, allies will withhold information they deem dangerous for us to know—again, as dictated by their own national interests.

It is again naive to assume that America and her allies always share national interests and thus always view intelligence collection through the same frame of reference. We do not. While it might be sufficient, and even beneficial, to share certain streams of information with our allies—for example, on terrorism or proliferation—America simply cannot rely on another country to acquire for her the information she most needs. That would be an unacceptable foregoing of the nation’s responsibility to provide for its own security. Harmon, finally, goes on to suggest reforms to the National Security Agency, although this author will leave that to others more knowledgeable to dissect.

Seeing the big picture, it is a positive development that knowledgeable individuals like Jane Harmon and John Brennan are considering how to improve and adapt our nation’s intelligence agencies to move forward into the future. We should always refuse to remain stagnant and strive to improve our efforts. These two individuals clearly have that goal in mind.

One just hopes Brennan’s vision wins out.

(Featured image courtesy of