TO: Porter Goss, U.S. Director of Central Intelligence
FROM: Robert Baer
RE: Getting the CIA Back in the Game
It's been a rough three years, Mr. Director. The agency missed the boat on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it miscalculated the armed resistance inside the country, and some say it bears primary responsibility for leading the United States into an unnecessary and costly war. Much of the criticism is overblown, and much overlooks the equally grave failures of other sectors of the government. Still, the CIA is clearly broken, and you have a chance to fix it.
Avoid two traps at the outset: Don't waste your time thinking that the recent, and much ballyhooed, intelligence reform bill is going to put things right. As you must know already, a top-level reshuffling of the intelligence community won't do anything to improve the CIA's performance. And don't spend too much time fighting battles over your new management team. Most of them will have moved to other jobs before they learn the nuts and bolts of intelligence gathering.
Reform is needed across the board, but the Directorate of Operations (DO) should be your first target. Its mission -- recruiting and running foreign spies -- should be the agency's core function. Give the DO the tools it needs, and intelligence analysis will take care of itself. Not to be too blunt about it, but if the DO had a source close to Osama bin Laden, 9/11 would not have happened. Here are my suggestions:
Reform the Promotion System: The old DO rule was that the only way an officer could be promoted was by recruiting sources, and the higher up, the better. Bring a Soviet official into the fold, and you could count on making it into the senior service. At the very least, an officer was expected to recruit one valuable source for every two-year tour overseas. It was never easy, but the expectation guaranteed that officers were motivated.
Then the Cold War ended, and intelligence gathering took a back seat. Within the DO, promotions tilted away from the overseas service and toward those who rarely left Washington. Rather than rotate into the field, officers were encouraged to try their hand at postings outside the CIA, but safely within the Beltway -- at the Pentagon or the National Security Council, for instance. Jim Pavitt, who ran the directorate through Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq war, hadn't served outside the United States since the mid-1980s.
To those in the ranks, the message was unmistakable: Not only was time in Washington the fastest way to climb the agency's ladder but recruiting spies -- an inherently risky business -- could put your career in jeopardy. No wonder the number of officers working the streets in such places as Beirut, Amman, and Sarajevo has dwindled. There was no reward for the effort. No wonder, either, that the CIA had no sources on WMD in Iraq leading up to the war. Think of what that says about how broken the agency was, and still is.
Know Your Sources: Give the DO credit for not being shy. It didn't let the absence of credible, on-the-ground sources prevent it from providing a steady stream of intelligence before the Iraq war, most of it contending that Saddam Hussein had retained large stocks of WMD and had a program to build a nuclear bomb. Unfortunately, most of this reporting came from Iraqi exiles, the very people who had spent the last three decades trying to draw the United States into a fight with Saddam. I had left the CIA when this intelligence was disseminated, but I would bet that few of the analysts involved were aware of its provenance.
This problem has an easy but essential fix: Provide the identity, affiliation, and reporting record of sources to senior analysts responsible for final assessments. If this information had been available during preparation of the now infamous October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, recipients would have been aware that it was Iraqi exiles -- and not objective sources -- who claimed Saddam was retaining WMDs. The NIE would have been considerably watered down, and today the president and the country would have more confidence in the CIA.
Integrate Federal, State, and Local Databases: There is no shortage of proposals floating around Washington for a supercounterterrorism agency that would consolidate law enforcement and intelligence databases. But proposals and a buck-fifty get you a cup of coffee, especially when so many civil libertarians are lined up against you. The CIA's own counterterrorism center has been working on this problem since it was established nearly 20 years ago and still hasn't found a way to DO the job.
It's important to understand how the system works now. If a CIA officer in the field comes across the name of a suspected terrorist, he or she can instantly trace it in agency databases. The officer cannot do the same with databases maintained by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, or any other federal agency. To access those databases, the officer either has to make a phone call or send a written request. And the same is true of FBI or State Department officers who want to check CIA electronic files. This antediluvian lack of integration has, of course, had tragic consequences. Because the FBI couldn't access CIA databases, it failed to notice that two Saudis entering the United States were suspected terrorists. The two were among the 19 hijackers on September 11. I understand the fear that the snoops will end up snooping on us, not them. But the risks of uncoordinated intelligence are simply too great.