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

January 7, 2015 Topic: Intelligence Region: United States

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.

The initial goal of this reform movement was to separate the leadership of the CIA from the coordinative responsibilities of the Intelligence Community, which were until then combined in one person, the Director of Central Intelligence.  The 2004 intelligence reform law did that by establishing the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) as the “head” of the Intelligence Community and vesting him with various budget, policy, and personnel authorities in an effort to forge a more integrated enterprise of the competing agencies.  But also central to the reform effort was an emphasis on “organizing around missions” and deconstructing the walls that traditionally separated collectors from analysts.

The 9/11 Commission Report gestured in this direction—concluding that a “‘smart’ government would integrate all sources of information to see the enemy as a whole,” and that “all-source analysis” should “inform and shape strategies to collect more intelligence.”  The 2005 Robb-Silberman Commission on U.S. intelligence capabilities regarding weapons of mass destruction, which was published as the DNI was being stood up, expounded on this concept and greatly influenced the DNI’s early moves.

“Throughout our study, we observed a lack of Community focus on intelligence missions,” the Robb-Silberman Report wrote.  “Under the current system, collectors, analysts and supervisors throughout the Community working on a given target function largely autonomously, communicating and collaborating only episodically.”  It recommended the Community organize around missions especially for “high-priority intelligence issues” and that the DNI establish “Mission Managers” who would be responsible for “designing and implementing a coordinated effort” and “knowing both what the Community knows (and what it does not know) about a particular target, and for developing strategies to optimize the Community’s capabilities against that particular target.”

The irony is that the CIA had been experimenting with centers long before the September 11 attacks.  In the mid-1980s, after terror attacks in Rome and Athens, the CIA created the Counterterrorism Center to unify collection and analysis.  It included representatives from the FBI and other agencies, coordinated collection, and produced analytic papers, but, according to the 9/11 Commission, its “focus was support to operations,” and a 1994 inspector general report “criticized the Center’s capacity to provide warning of terrorist attacks.”  The Robb-Silberman Commission faulted the lack of a “coordinated effort among the major federal agencies tasked with counterterrorism responsibility” prior to 9/11, despite the existence of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.

In essence, the Robb-Silberman Commission called upon the DNI to improve and expand upon the center model that CIA had developed decades earlier in a previous moment of crisis.  The first DNI, John D. Negroponte, attempted to do just that when he appointed Community-wide mission managers for Iran, North Korea, counterproliferation, counterterrorism, and counterintelligence in November 2005.  He also overhauled the National Intelligence Collection Board, an interagency group that reviewed the individual agencies’ collection efforts, to promote closer collaboration between collectors and analysts.

When Mike McConnell, the second DNI, took office in February 2007, he made implementing a “mission-centric approach” a central plank of his agenda.  In his “100 Day Plan,” released in April 2007, he wrote that fostering “radical transformation” in collection and analysis was an “imperative” that would be achieved “through integration of analytic workspaces, analytic products, analytic tools, and the analytic direction of intelligence collection.”  He explained that, “[a]t its root, this effort’s success depends on increased transparency and collaboration between analysts and collectors” so that recipients of intelligence receive “the most timely, accurate, and relevant information possible to face our most critical challenges.”

Two of McConnell’s initiatives were the creation of the National Intelligence Coordination Center, which, it was hoped, would allow the DNI to move resources to improve collection on intelligence priorities as they emerged, and Unified Collection Strategies, which were detailed studies of what the Community was collecting on its most important targets.  As Patrick C. Neary, a DNI official, has written, both initiatives made some improvements, especially the collection strategies effort, which “innovated by bringing analytic voices to the table”—a long-sought goal.

McConnell coupled these bureaucratic initiatives with an aggressive campaign to promote a more unified intelligence effort, hoping to lead a broader cultural shift.  “Integration and collaboration” became an often-invoked motto.  He emblazoned the phrase “Integrated Intelligence” on the DNI Challenge Coins he gave to visitors, dignitaries, and staff.  He wrote an article for Foreign Affairs magazine to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the passage of the National Security Act in which he urged Washington to “forge a collaborative approach to intelligence that increases the agility of individual agencies and facilitates the effective coordination and integration of their work.”  He sat for an interview with Lawrence Wright, who wrote the definitive book on the 9/11 hijackers, and spoke of his plans for a “culture of collaboration” across the intelligence agencies.  He told Congress that he was focusing on serving as an “integrator” of the Community.

The current DNI, James R. Clapper, Jr., has doubled-down on this mission-centric approach.  He has defined leading “intelligence integration” as the “core mission” of the DNI. “Basically, intelligence integration means synchronizing collection, analysis, and counterintelligence so that they are fused—effectively operating as one team,” his office wrote in 2013.  To support this mission, Clapper went beyond the recommendations of the Robb-Silberman Commission and created over a dozenNational Intelligence Managers” on major regional areas (such as Iran, East Asia, and Africa) and functional areas (such as economics, counterproliferation, and counterterrorism). These managers are “responsible for end-to-end intelligence mission integration” and “serve as principal substantive advisors for intelligence” on their areas.  They also write “Unifying Intelligence Strategies” that aim to synchronize cross-community collection and analysis efforts against their targets.