Intelligence Design: Putting the CIA’s Reported Reorganization in Context

"The CIA’s successful reorganization would be the most significant evidence yet that the intelligence reform effort, so often maligned, has succeeded at the place some thought it least likely..."

Public discussion of the rumored plan to reorganize the CIA—to break down the wall between its analysts and collectors and “create hybrid units focused on individual regions and threats”—has emphasized the “sweeping” and “radical” nature of these changes.  It “seems like a pretty big deal,” writes one professor.  And, if the reports are true and the shake-up proceeds, the redrawn organization chart will be the most far-reaching overhaul of the Agency in decades.  But this redesign concept is not unprecedented.  Instead, the “center-ization” of CIA would amount to one of the most important—and perhaps least appreciated—achievements of the intelligence reform effort that followed the 9/11 attacks.

One of the central pillars of reform emphasized breaking down obsolete bureaucratic stovepipes among and within intelligence agencies: focusing not on particular disciplines (such as human collection or signals analysis) but on fusing all the disciplines to produce the most accurate understanding of targets (such as counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and China).  The hope was that, as a result of such a joint effort, analysis would “drive” collection—collectors would know better what information analysts needed, and analysts would have a better understanding of the reliability (or unreliability) of their sources.

Over the past decade, the reform effort has succeeded in some areas, stalled in others, and garnered its share of criticism, some of which has been featured in these pages.  As historians Michael Warner and J. Kenneth McDonald wrote, “[s]weeping intelligence reform is rare because it is so difficult.”  But what the reported CIA reorganization suggests is that this idea—that intelligence should be a collaborative endeavor organized around missions and not around disciplines—has won substantial support from a bureaucracy famous for its aversion to change.  This development is a victory for those who favored the broad intelligence reform effort that followed September 11.  But more important, it provides an important case study of how bureaucracies, and the organizational philosophies that drive them, can adapt.

1.     The Reported CIA Reorganization:

The CIA is currently structured around four main divisions: analysis (the Directorate of Intelligence), collection (the National Clandestine Service), technology (the Directorate of Science and Technology), and support (the Directorate of Support).  As described in the Washington Post, the proposed reorganization would eliminate this design and rebuild the Agency “around a model that relies on ‘centers’ that combine analysts, operators, scientists, and support staff.”  These centers would focus on “China, Latin America and other regions or issues for which personnel are now dispersed across differen[t] parts of the agency.”  The Post notes that the CIA has already developed such centers for “its most daunting assignments, including efforts to slow the spread of narcotics, illicit weapons and nuclear arms.”  The Agency’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) is the largest and most well-known of these centers and, as the Post writes, “[m]any attribute the CTC’s success against al-Qaeda to [CTC’s] fusion of disciplines, with analysts who have detailed knowledge of terrorist networks working directly with operators charged with dismantling them.”  The melding of analysts and collectors together—both functionally and physically, by actually sitting them together in the same workspace—“can give analysts deeper understanding of the motivations and reliability of sources,” and analysts can help collectors “see flaws in operational plans.”  In an email to the workforce, CIA Director John Brennan extolled the virtues of such a reorganization, writing that “the need for integration has never been greater.”

2.     The Post-9/11 Context:

If the CIA’s emphasis on “integration” sounds familiar, it is because it is.  Almost since the creation of the modern national security bureaucracy, there have been calls to integrate the vast Intelligence Community more tightly.  The 9/11 attacks triggered intensified study of how best to do so.