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

CIA Purchase of Iraqi CW: Background and Context

By Greg Mercer

Recently, a CIA program to buy and destroy chemical weapons in Iraq has come to light.   The New York Times reports that from 2005 to 2006, Operation Avarice saw the purchase and destruction of 400 chemical weapon rockets originally developed by the Hussein regime in the 1980s.  Reports vary on the contents of the rockets, which may have contained either degraded chemical components or still-active sarin.  The Times article states that, in cooperation with the Army 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion, the CIA station in Baghdad made the purchase from a single Iraqi seller and destroyed the weapons.

These events notably fall outside of the findings of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the 2003 Department of Defense-led fact finding mission.  The ISG released a final report in 2004 detailing Iraqi WMD-related activities from 1991 to 2003. However, ongoing conflict in Iraq has led to further encounters with remnants of Hussein’s WMD programs.

An October 2014 article detailed claims made by veterans that military personnel had been exposed to sulfur mustard during the destruction of seized Iraqi chemical weapons near Taji.  The Times’ CJ Chivers places the number of service members exposed to chemical weapons at no fewer than 17, and asserts that they received inadequate healthcare.  His investigation led to the Pentagon acknowledging that hundreds of service members had been exposed to chemical weapons and had received insufficient treatment.

A May 2004 Fox News article reported that a 155mm artillery shell used as part of a roadside bomb in Iraq was found to have contained sarin, and two service members were treated for mild symptoms of exposure.  While the shell contained three liters of sarin, it was a binary system, where separate chemical compounds are mixed to form the weapon agent.  Due to its use as an improvised explosive and failure to combine, the agent was not potent enough to be lethal.  The article notes that a different shell containing mustard gas was found in a similar setup.  However, this shell also did not detonate, and the chemical agent was found by the ISG to be inactive due to improper storage.

In July 2004 the Washington Post reported that warheads found in Iraq by Polish forces, originally believed to be chemical weapons dating back to the Iran-Iraq war (which saw the use of chemical weapons by both sides), did not, in fact, contain chemical agents.  The warheads were reportedly purchased, not confiscated, rockets, though this point was disputed by an unnamed senior intelligence official, who said that the U.S. had been told that the rockets were found alongside other conventional weapons.  Chemical weapons or not, the episode demonstrates the severity with which international forces in Iraq treated claims of insurgents and terrorists possessing or seeking unsecured Hussein-era weapons.

It’s important to note that these brushes with chemical weapons involved agents dating to before 1991.

Chemical weapons were not the only illicit goods seized in Iraq.  In 2005, the Associated Press reported that 550 metric tons of yellowcake uranium had been sold to Canadian uranium producer Cameco Corp. for use as nuclear fuel.  The U.S. conducted a top-secret airlift operation of 37 flights to move the uranium from Baghdad to Montreal.  The uranium was a remnant of Hussein’s nascent nuclear weapons program.  Yellowcake uranium is an intermediate product of uranium processing, not weapons-grade material.  It can either be smelted into fuel rods for use in nuclear reactors for power production, or enriched into U-235 via gas centrifuge.  Low-enriched uranium (up to 20% U-235) is also used in nuclear reactors, but highly-enriched uranium (90%) is used in nuclear weapons.


Image Credit: The New York Times

Pandora Report 05.24.14

Highlights include the CIA and their “Immunization Campaigns,” Ricin Sentencing, Dengue Warning for the World Cup, and Bacteria and E-Cigarettes. Have a safe and wonderful Memorial Day weekend!!

CIA Drops Vaccination Cover Story in the Wake of Polio Outbreak

Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor, provided polio vaccinations in the city of Abbottabad as a cover for the CIA-backed effort to obtain DNA samples from children at a compound where Osama bin Laden was later found and killed in 2011. This week, however, the White House assured the deans of prominent U.S. Public Health Schools that the CIA will no longer use vaccination programs as a cover for spy operations. The agency also agreed not to use genetic materials obtained through such programs.  This announcement comes at a time when Polio cases are growing and spreading in Pakistan—in 2013 cases in Pakistan accounted for more than 20% of all new polio cases worldwide.

CBC—“The CIA’s use of a polio vaccine program to spy on bin Laden’s compound undercut Obama’s own high-profile speech to the Muslim world in 2009, in which he touted U.S. efforts to slash the growth of polio in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. With Obama administration assurances, Muslim scholars in two international groups issued religious decrees urging parents to vaccinate their children.”

Mississippi Man Sentenced in Ricin Letter Investigation

This week, James Dutschke was sentenced to 25 years in prison for developing and possessing Ricin. Dutschke mailed the ricin-laced letters to the President, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, and a Lee County Mississippi Judge.

FBI—“Following an investigation, Dutschke was arrested on April 27, 2013, and indicted by a federal grand jury on June 3, 2013. A superseding indictment was filed on November 20, 2013. Dutschke pled guilty on January 17, 2014, to one count of developing and possessing ricin and three subsequent counts of mailing threatening letters laced with the substance. According to the plea agreement between Dutschke and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that was filed in U.S. District Court in Oxford, Dutschke had agreed to serve a 300-month prison sentence and had waived his right to appeal.”

Scientists Warn of Dengue Fever Risk during Brazil’s World Cup

This topic has been circulating for weeks, if not months, but with the beginning of the World Cup a few weeks away, this story has been popping up in the news on a daily basis. Of the 12 World Cup host cities, the risk of Dengue fever has prompted a high alert in three—Natal, Fortaleza, and Recife—and an increased risk in four—Rio, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, and Manaus.

Dengue fever, sometimes called “breakbone fever,” is a viral infection transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It can range from a mild, flu-like illness to a potentially deadly one, which occurs in approximately 5% of patients. There are no vaccines or effective treatments for Dengue Fever. Brazil has had more cases of the disease than anywhere in the world—more than seven million infections between 2000 and 2013.

Chicago Tribune—“Rachel Lowe, from the Catalan Institute of Climate Sciences in Barcelona, who helped develop the warning system, said the possibility of an outbreak during the World Cup large enough to infect visitors and spread back to their home countries will depend on a combination of factors. This include having large numbers of mosquitoes, a susceptible population and a high rate of mosquito-human contact, she said.”

Here’s Why Bacteria Like E-Cigs

Many, including everyone’s favorite anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy, claim that e-cigs are safer for their health than traditional cigarettes. However, it addition to the harm cigarettes inflict on the immune cell, it turns out that either type of cigarette may be just as bad for the body’s natural bacteria.

Time—“Dr. Laura Crotty Alexander, from the University of California at San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System, found that the vapor from e-cigs prompts bacteria to become more resistant to antibiotics. In the presence of e-cig vapor, for example, methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) became more resistant to the natural anti-microbial agents that the body makes. Cigarette smoke also produces the same effect, but Crotty Alexander was surprised that the e-cig vapors did as well, given that they were not supposed to contain the health-harming carcinogens that tobacco smoke does.”


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons