Expert Commentary

Time for a New CIA?

March 2, 2016 | John Sipher

Across the Central Intelligence Agency lobby from the iconic stars memorializing officers killed in the line of duty is a less well-known memorial.  It is an understated relief in honor of those foreign spies who risked and lost their lives to provide secret information to the United States.  It is a reminder that the CIA remains at its core, the nation’s espionage arm.  Apparently, however, CIA Director John Brennan doesn’t see it that way.

In what was otherwise a thoughtful interview with National Public Radio last week, CIA Director John Brennan expressed his personal view that the CIA should be not be viewed as a spy agency.  In the 24 February interview he said, “I don’t support government spying…. We don’t steal secrets…  We uncover, we discover, we reveal, we obtain, we elicit, we solicit.  All of that.”  What?  We don’t steal secrets?  Is he joking?  Brennan has reportedly also made clear to the officers under his charge that he eschews the term espionage, and does not view the CIA as an espionage service. 

Fortuitously, former CIA Director Michael Hayden’s new book, “Playing to the Edge” was released on the same day that Brennan made his comments, and he seems more comfortable advocating for CIA’s espionage role.  The title of Hayden’s book is sports metaphor meant to highlight how he viewed his responsibility as the Director of the NSA and CIA.  That is, in an effort to secure the safety of the American people, U.S. officials should use all of their authorities under the law.  They should use the entire playing field, even right up to the boundary.  In the book, Hayden refers to a speech in which he comments that “the American people expect CIA to use every inch we are given to protect her fellow citizens,” adding his view that espionage is essential to a democracy.  Sadly, Brennan’s remarks on the same day suggest that he does not see his authority in the same way.

While his comments might not resonate outside of the Intelligence Community, make no mistake, it is a long term danger to our security when the head of the nation’s espionage organization says that he doesn’t support spying.  It sends a chill through those who work in the shadows to keep us safe and makes them wonder if their boss has their back.  It also confirms the fears of many CIA employees and alumni that Brennan’s recent efforts to restructure and change CIA culture were a furtive means of weakening the clandestine service.  

CIA houses several very different cultures under one roof.  The three main tribes are the analysts, the spies and the techies.  For outsiders, the analysts are in-house academics and experts who brief and write papers for the President and policymakers.  The spies are those officers of the Clandestine Service (now called the Directorate of Operations, or DO) who live overseas and manage human spy networks.  They tend to be the cocky jet pilots of the CIA.  The techies spend the money and manage huge, sophisticated, cutting edge programs.  They are engineers, scientists and visionaries.  Housing these three tribes under one roof has always been both CIA’s strength and weakness.  The training, mission and career progression of the three tribes are very different and don’t always mesh.  When they work together it is magical. 

However, in order to maintain that magic, one tribe cannot seek to dominate the others.

Since his arrival in 2012, there has been a fear in the clandestine side of the house that Brennan, a career analyst, was intent on taking the clandestine service down a peg.  There is a view that he has never been comfortable with the DO culture and was looking to neuter them.  Some view the highly publicized restructuring (“modernization”) as means to accomplish this culture change.  The Washington Post even reported that the previous Chief of the Clandestine Service abruptly retired in opposition to the restructuring plan that he believed was a calculated effort to weaken the spy side of the house at the expense of the Intelligence Directorate (the analysts).  Despite the whispers, I didn’t believe that the CIA Director could be so petty.  Now I wonder if I was wrong.

Let me be clear.  Despite what Mr. Brennan says, what my colleagues and I did in the CIA was espionage – stealing secrets.  We didn’t “discover,” we stole.  Our sources were not taxi drivers, social media feeds, or newspapers.  They were people with access to secrets who were well aware that they were risking their lives, and possibly those of their families, to steal information for the U.S.

The CIA steals secrets and will always need to do so.  We don’t do it for fun or because we can.  The clandestine arm of the CIA is the collector of last resort.  The USG should use all means—open, technical, and diplomatic—to gather the information it needs to inform policy.  Collecting information openly is certainly preferable to stealing it.  However, if a critical piece of information is determined in our national interest and nobody else can get it, we have to steal it.  The officers of the clandestine service take their responsibilities seriously and often put themselves in harm’s way to get the job done.  We are not always successful, and sometimes create political scandals, but we succeed more often that the public knows.

Also, for those of us in the business, it is hard to fathom why a CIA Director would even bother to claim that he doesn’t steal secrets.  Our adversaries are not likely to take him at his word.  Further, we don’t really get to define what counts as espionage and what doesn’t.  Other countries decide what constitutes treachery and secrecy in their countries.  As far as I know, every country in the world views espionage as a crime and punishes those who engage in it with prison or death.  I certainly took my responsibility seriously and worked diligently to protect those in my care – always well aware of what would happen to them if caught.  No government in the world would see what we did as “discovering or eliciting” information consistent with their laws.  We scrupulously followed U.S. law, while consistently breaking foreign laws.

Surely, the CIA is much more than just an espionage Agency.  It is a central clearing house for open source information, human intelligence, diplomatic reporting, military reporting, academic expertise, signals intelligence, electronic intelligence, covert action, relations with foreign security services, and a world class analytical shop.  CIA’s magic is that it can do so much under one roof.  It needs to put all data and information in context for policymakers.  That said, its life blood is secret information – information that no other organization can provide.

While Mr. Brennan can claim that the CIA doesn’t engage in espionage, that would come as a surprise to those sources sitting in foreign prisons for allegedly cooperating with the CIA.  Dr. Shakil Afridi is still sitting in a Pakistani jail for reportedly helping the CIA find Osama Bin Ladin.  According to press accounts, he is the Pakistani physician who ran a fake hepatitis vaccine program in Abbottabad to collect DNA and confirm Bin Ladin’s presence.  Over the years, many brave foreigners provided information to the U.S. and paid the ultimate price.  Dozens of Russian spies were killed due to the treachery of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.  Pyotr Popov was reportedly thrown into a fire pit in front of his GRU colleagues in an effort by the KGB to show its officers the price of treachery (see the book “Mole” by William Hood).  And sadly, many more.  Those brave souls would be surprised to hear that CIA doesn’t engage in espionage.

Shortly after its stand-up in 2004, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence tried to create lead agencies for all of the various functions of the Intelligence Community – NSA for signals intelligence, FBI for domestic intelligence, DIA for military support, NRO for space based collection, NGA for imagery, and CIA for human intelligence – spying.  If Brennan is not comfortable with the spying side of the house and is intent on re-crafting the CIA into an analytical agency, the time has come to look to our history and re-create a separate espionage service along the lines of the WWII era OSS.  Spying, stealing, suborning, and pilfering is often dirty work, but someone has to do it if CIA won’t.

The Author is John Sipher

John Sipher is a Director of Client Services at CrossLead, Inc. John retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service. At the time of his retirement he was a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service.  John served multiple overseas tours as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station in Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and South Asia. He is the recipient of the Agency's Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal.

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