The CIA’s New Hats: Some Thoughts on John Brennan’s Reorganization Plan

By Greg Mercer

In March, CIA Director John Brennan announced his plan for restructuring the Central Intelligence Agency in his “Blueprint for the Future”—the unclassified version of which is available on the CIA’s website.  The plan, structured as a memo to CIA personnel, provides a broad overview of the coming administrative changes proposed by Brennan’s Study Group.  Brennan identifies two key areas of national security that prompted the changes: “The first,” Brennan says, “is the marked increase in the range, diversity, complexity, and immediacy of issues confronting policymakers; and the second is the unprecedented pace and impact of technological advancements.”  New issues and new technology seem like pretty common themes in Washington these days.  Let’s look at what Brennan plans to do about them.

To respond to these policy areas, the memo outlines four themes: enhancing talent and human capital, addressing the digital revolution, modernizing the business process, and integrating capabilities to address mission areas.  I’ll talk mostly about the digital and integration themes here.

Probably the most radical change is the addition of a new directorate to address the rapidly expanding need for cyber offense and defense capabilities.  This is where the new Directorate of Digital Innovation comes in.  This is the largest change to the CIA’s structure since the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.  Brennan doesn’t go into detail about the specific operations of the new directorate beyond “overseeing… standards of our digital tradecraft.”  “Digital tradecraft” is a vague, amorphous term that can broadly refer to any number of activities within the cyber domain, all of which would likely be highly classified.  Generally, though, “tradecraft” means “spycraft.”

U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM)—a joint military command co-located at Fort Meade, Maryland, with the National Security Agency (NSA), the primary signals intelligence agency—represents the bulk of U.S. cyber presence right now.  The CIA’s history of covert actions and the existence of a military cyber command raise concern over whether the U.S. is developing simply cyber defenses or cyberwarfare capabilities.  The best evidence for the latter is the Stuxnet computer worm, discovered in 2010, which targeted Iranian nuclear equipment and is largely attributed—at least partially—to the U.S.  The creation of a new CIA directorate devoted entirely to cyber activities is a response to the overwhelming academic and industry consensus that the cyber domain poses imminent threats to the U.S. However, the new directorate isn’t unique, given the existence of USCYBERCOM and the NSA, and might represent the condensing of existing CIA cyber activities into a single structure.  It is hard to glean any details about the CIA’s cyber intentions moving forward, but the new directorate is a major organizational change and a huge signal that the government is continuing to respond to the rise of the cyber domain.

Speaking of consolidating activities, Brennan also announced the creation of new Missions Centers and changes to existing directorates.  Citing the need to address varying threats and U.S. national security interests, Brennan explained that Mission Centers, each led by an Assistant Director, will incorporate activities from across the agency to address a specific topic.  Functionally, this seems to mean that Brennan intends to close the long-standing divide between analysis and covert action that has defined the CIA since its inception, and he has announced administrative changes to support this.  The National Clandestine Service, which runs all of the CIA’s undercover activities, will be renamed the Directorate of Operations, and the Directorate of Intelligence will become the Directorate of Analysis.  While these seem like minor name changes, they reflect the greater forces at play—Brennan intends for the directorates to train quality operatives and analysts to contribute to the Mission Centers.  The Assistant Directors will have “accountability and responsibility for the delivery of excellence in their respective occupations across all of the Centers.” This setup seems to be modeled on the National Counterterrorism Center or the Bin Laden unit, crosscutting organizations within the intelligence community that combined strengths from many disciplines.  This will, however, take a great deal of proactive administrative attention to ensure that cooperation and coordination are paramount.  Shared missions are powerful motivator, but they are often not enough to convince large organizations to coordinate successfully.  This will take time and a great deal of work at every level.

A focus on personnel runs throughout the memo.  While it might not seem this way to current graduate students and job seekers, the CIA has historically had major problems attracting qualified, competent employees, especially following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the agency found itself flooded with Soviet experts and woefully unprepared to address the host of new threats and interests around the world.  The CIA has had a long and often sordid history (I highly recommend Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes for a comprehensive look), and often found itself the target of harsh criticism by Congress and the presidency, but Brennan seems to be targeting major, long-standing flaws with his reform plan.  This is a laudable, noble pursuit, and I hope it has a positive impact.  The intelligence community usually sees its soul searching come after major failures or during times of national crisis.  Coming on the tail of revelations about U.S. interrogation programs, these changes seem to aim to fix the system before disaster strikes again (though it is certainly accurate to call the decade-plus of detention and interrogation abuses a disaster).  Let’s hope Brennan’s plan is sound.

Image Credit: CIA

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