Tag Archives: Central Intelligence Agency

Panetta promotes precision

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One of the few things I have agreed with Dick Cheney about is the wisdom of using a scalpel rather than a truncheon:

The stepped-up drone strikes, Panetta’s opposition to the release of information about CIA interrogation practices, and his resistance to greater oversight of the agency by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have prompted criticism that he is a thrall of the agency’s old guard. In the meantime, the strikes have begun to draw greater scrutiny, with watchdog groups demanding to know more about how they are carried out and the legal reasoning behind the killings.

In an interview Wednesday at CIA headquarters, Panetta refused to directly address the matter of Predator strikes, in keeping with the agency’s long-standing practice of shielding its actions in Pakistan from public view. But he said that U.S. counterterrorism policies in the country are legal and highly effective, and that he is acutely aware of the gravity of some of the decisions thrust upon him.

Panetta may resemble the Company’s old guard, but it’s hard to argue that the organization isn’t stronger under his leadership.  Were I to have one wish, it would be that the tension between the DCI and the DNI come to a head and be resolved once and for all.

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New round of intel reform posturing begins

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Just a quick break from vacation to observe the friction between the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of Central Intelligence:

The White House this month issued a classified order to resolve mounting frictions between the nation’s intelligence director and the CIA over issues including how the agency conducts covert operations, U.S. officials said.

The intervention reflects simmering tension between the two most powerful players in the U.S. intelligence community: Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.

The memo maintains the CIA’s status as the nation’s lead spy service on covert missions, rejecting an attempt by Blair to assert more control. But the document also includes language detailing the agency’s obligation to work closely with Blair on sensitive operations.

The White House memo, signed by National Security Advisor James L. Jones, was an attempt to settle a collection of disputes that have plagued the relationship between the director of national intelligence and the CIA director for years.

I’ve been interested in this for a long time (dates of the links are August 2004, June 2009, December 2008, and April 2009).  Here’s what I wrote this time last year about the conflict:

Why “putative”?  The DNI was created in much the same way as the Director of Central Intelligence was originally intended; that is, to be the point of the intel spear.  “16 other intelligence agencies”, most of them within the Department of Defense, indicates how diffuse the community has become.  Budget authority for most of the intel community lies outside of the DNI’s scope, resulting in a role that is heavy on its need for influence, short on control, and highly susceptible to the caprices of a complex political environment.  Creating new organizational entities to compensate for dysfunction among other organizational entities often brings unintended consequences.  A “joined-up” intel community continues to be no more than a diluted aspiration hovering over a cluster of moribund silos.

The DNI is a position created without the benefit of systemic analysis and diagnosis of the problems it was designed to create.  It is political organizational hackery at its worst.  This is what happens when you move the boxes on the org chart around without understanding what they mean.  This is what happens when you do not strive for a view of organizational and trans-organizational interdependencies.  This is what happens when you fail to acknowledge that budget represents strategy more than does title.  This is what happens when you replace an opportunity for inquiry with an abundance of certainty.

I don’t intend to continue banging the “I told you so” drum on this.  There’s almost six years of analysis on intel reform in the archives of this blog, which in turn build upon a century each of organizational scholarship and solid reporting on the origins and evolution of the intel community.  There are a handful of articles in the last month alone that describe the turf wars between DNI and CIA in Washington and abroad, as well as a pile of archives stretching back to the summer of 2004.  For those who remain unconvinced about the hot mess the new arrangement has created, there’s little more I can offer.

Intelligence reform was taken up in the early part of this benighted decade to address a failure to connect dots and staggering deficiencies in coordination and cooperation, the two fundamental concerns of organization theory.  The urgency of a nation newly returned to war combined with the momentum of aligned political will should have brought forth an intel community with (internally) clear accountability, budget authority, processes, lines of authority, resource availability, methods of cooperation, etc.  The fact that we read about this in major newspapers indicates that that has not happened, and is almost certainly not in the process of happening.

We are at the inception of a fresh new round of political posturing about “connecting dots” and “chatter in the system”.  Another young punk with some shadowy connections tried to bring down a plane, much like the hapless Richard Reid a handful of years before him.  Absent a total ban on luggage of any sort and duct-taping passengers naked to their chairs, this will almost certainly happen again.  This would be a good opportunity to put the nature and extent of the threat in context, perhaps moving from the blunt-force approach of war to the precision approaches of solid international law enforcement.  Alas, the conversation will almost certainly be driven by loud voices spending yet another fortune on yet another doomed run at intel reform–we love our sound and fury, but we seem unable to remember what they signify.

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Week in Public Organizations, 3Aug2009


I’m surprised at the lack of blowback from American Apparel’s decision to sack its uglier employees.  Would there be more outrage if Wal-Mart did the same?

More al Qaeda orgporn, comprehensive climate and energy policy, improving intel, Wall Street and government, sprucing up around the store, and drugs.  These were some of the stories ripped from the headlines in the past week:

New information on al Qaeda org structure
Small green wins should lead to broader policy
CIA program investigation offers learning opportunity
Hanlon’s razor and the PBGC scandal
American Apparel to dismiss ugly employees
Grim views on unintended consequences in drug laws

CIA program investigation offers learning opportunity

I missed this article on the CIA’s super-double-secret assassination program when it first came out:

Enter Leon Panetta, the new CIA director. After settling in, he was briefed by the Counter-Terrorism Center on the assassination idea and was concerned. In the years since 2001, explains a government official, “money was spent, agents were recruited, teams were trained, people were deployed.” Panetta sensed that the program had a “troubled history,” and that although nobody had been killed, there had been “one pretty red-faced flap” when an operation went wrong, this official says.

Panetta is said to have asked two questions: Had Congress been briefed, and had the program been valuable? The answer to both questions from CIA counter-terrorism officials was “no.” So Panetta decided in late June to stop the program, pending a further review, and to brief Congress about it.

The House intelligence committee is preparing its investigation. I hope it will focus on both sides of Panetta’s question: Why wasn’t Congress briefed on this idea for a global squeeze on al-Qaeda, and why didn’t it work?

Those are precisely the questions to ask, and I suspect there is more to be learned from the latter than the former.  Not that it has to be one or the other, but the question casts in sharp relief the opportunity Washington has to choose blame or learning.

[Image:  Tom Clancy’s “Ghost Recon” from Ubi Soft.  Not sure if that was obvious enough.]

Week in Public Organizations, 20Jul2009


Haven’t been doing these lately as life has intervened on the personal level.  I’d like to get back to it, though.  The recaps are like those “Lost” specials that try to give you four seasons in 42 minutes.

Groupthink and torture, future hiring trends, what happens in the CIA stays in the CIA, radar love, networked innovation, pessimistic entrepreneurs, Congress snoops the snoops, and social capital in Ukraine.  These were some stories that caught my attention in recent days.

Groupthink and the selection of interrogation techniques
Employers’ choices now may have downstream consequences
CIA notification policy subject of probe
Using radar expands the idea horizon
Networked innovation requires a shift in thinking
Entrepreneurial success negatively correlated with optimism
Congressional probe offers clarity on CIA rules
Gorbis’ reflections on Soviet childhood and social capital

Groupthink and the selection of interrogation techniques

Evidence that post-9/11 groupthink drove the push to torture:

“It was not a job we sought out,” said one former senior intelligence official involved in early decisions on interrogation. “The generals didn’t want to do it. The FBI said no. It fell to the agency because we had the [legal] authorities and could operate overseas.”

In [James E.] Mitchell, the CIA found an authoritative professional who had answers, despite an absence of practical experience in interrogating terrorism suspects or data showing that harsh tactics work.

“Here was a guy with a title and a shingle,” recalled the participant in the Langley meeting, “and he was saying things that others in the room already believed to be true.”

Consultants and the confirmation bias; it’s a pattern that happens again and again.

CIA notification policy subject of probe

Nukes & Spooks notes the move to probe CIA’s notification policy:

The chairman of the House intelligence commitee, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said Friday that the panel is opening an investigation into whether the CIA has properly notified Congress of significant covert actions.

Reyes’ move was triggered by CIA Director Leon Panetta’s June 24 disclosure that Congress had not been notified of a major planned counter-terrorism program, later reported to be an agency effort to form elite teams to hunt down and kill top terrorist operatives at close range. The effort never got off the ground, and then-Vice President Dick Cheney told the agency not to tell Congress’ intelligence committees of the matter.

It appears from what’s emerging in recent days that “all options are on the table” discussions led to at least two major proposals:

  1. Elite teams for up-close kills
  2. Drones for remote kills

There were probably many other options discussed, but these are the two we know the most about.  The former was apparently too problematic to pursue (so far as the public knows), and the latter became the most public means of addressing the problem, albeit with some mixed results on collateral damage and territorial disputes.

The matter of organizational interest here, of course, is the clarification and observance of policy; specifically, what does the somewhat vague language of the National Security Act of 1947 require?  At present, the interpretation of the language tends to provide some cover and discretion for CIA in failing to disclose sensitive information, especially if that information is able to be classified as early-stage and non-operational.  Put another way, you don’t have to tell anyone if you’re just tossing ideas around.

The likely outcome from the investigation is some sort of middle way that gives Congress some satisfaction and stops short of punishing the CIA, though I wouldn’t rule out some rebuke.  CIA has spent most of its existence as a politically convenient “whipping child”, to quote Senator Judd Gregg.

An interesting question, though:  to what degree might the program have been discussed as an alternative to war rather than a complement to it?

[Bonus trivia:  The National Security Act was signed aboard Truman’s Douglas C-54 Skymaster presidential plane, the precursor to Air Force One.  That plane was called The Sacred Cow.]