4 U.S. Intelligence Assumptions That Need to Go

The U.S. Intelligence Community has a tough mission—to protect national security. Here's how it can improve its ability to do that.

Last fall, the Washington Post reported that CIA was considering a massive reform of the National Clandestine Service and the Directorate of Intelligence. CIA Director John Brennan was considering combining much of the two directorates—responsible for clandestine human intelligence and analysis, respectively—into centers, like the existing Counterterrorism Center (CTC). Most observers have lauded the move as an innovative approach to intelligence reform that would exploit the synergy of analysts and operators working closely together. The uncritical reception shows that nearly fourteen years since the “national failure” of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the words intelligence reform seem to retain some magical character about the self-evident correctness of the cause. One can hardly avoid thinking of George Orwell’s bleating choir: “intelligence reform good, CIA bad.” The assumptions that underpin such optimistic reception of nearly any intelligence reform proposal, however, are problematic for the long-term health of the U.S. Intelligence Community.

The flaws in this intelligence-reform mentality are four-fold—and each plays a role in how proposals like Brennan’s reported reforms are generated and discussed, as well as past reforms such as creating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. First, many intelligence-reform proponents conflate the very different disciplines of what we normally think of as intelligence and security intelligence, which includes activities like counterterrorism. Second, the problems with the CIA and the U.S. Intelligence Community are organizational. Third, security stovepipes no longer reflect modern intelligence concerns. Finally, they assume U.S. intelligence agencies are basically the same, making centralization and reducing duplication effective means of improving intelligence performance.

Not all forms of intelligence—even if performed by the same agency, like the CIA—are the same, and they may entail completely different relationships than develop between traditional intelligence officers and policy makers. The traditional intelligence targeting of foreign governments to support policy makers, known as foreign intelligence, simply is not comparable to the four security-intelligence disciplines—counterterrorism, counterintelligence, counterproliferation and counternarcotics—for which the CIA maintains centers.

Foreign intelligence as practiced in the United States separates intelligence analysis and policy making with the hope of generating an objective assessment of the world upon which to make effective policy. The bifurcation of analysis and action gives intelligence analysts the job of providing warning, sorting signals from noise and helping policy makers reduce uncertainty about the world in which they are acting. This separation is both organizational and psychological and complaints of politicization are a sign of this belief that the analysis without a stake in the outcome provides the best service for policy makers. Innovations in practice, like opportunity analysis, are still based upon the idea that objectivity comes from distance.

As practiced within the U.S. government’s security-intelligence community, the work product normally thought of as “intelligence” reflects the operational concerns of stopping hostile activity by detecting, degrading and disrupting it. This kind of work has a concrete operational purpose with close links to covert action and/or other forms of policy action. The most comparable work from traditional intelligence is the past practice of placing of analysts with arms-control teams—not the creation of centers like CTC.

Former chief of British signals intelligence Michael Herman in his Intelligence Power in Peace and War described the differences as foreign-intelligence activities principally involve disseminating information; whereas, security-intelligence activities involve detection. Or, put another way by British historian Peter Hennessy, traditional foreign intelligence deals with adversaries whose intentions are unknown, but whose capabilities are easier to discover; security intelligence deals with adversaries whose intentions are known, but whose capabilities are most difficult to address.