Analysis: Should the CIA kill less and spy more?

CIA headquarters
The Central Intelligence Agency’s awkward silence about the recent resignation of its Director, General David Petraeus, is indicative of an organization that remains distinctly uncomfortable with publicity. The added layer of the sexual nature of Petraeus’ impropriety has increased exponentially the degree of unease at Langley. Yet sooner or later the news media will move on to something else and General Petraeus will fade into the distance. For seasoned intelligence observers, however, the question of the CIA’s future will remain firmly in the foreground. In an interview earlier this week with Wired magazine, former CIA Director General Michael Hayden (ret.) opined that Petraeus’ resignation presents the Agency with the opportunity to return to its operational roots. Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said that the Agency has been “laser-focused on terrorism” for many years. Consequently, much of its operational output “looks more like targeting than it does classical intelligence”, he said. His views were echoed by the CIA’s former Acting Director, John McLaughlin, who told Wired that the most significant challenge for the post-Petraeus CIA “may be the sheer volume of problems that require [good old-fashioned] intelligence input”. Yesterday, meanwhile, saw the publication of two opinion pieces by two of America’s most experienced intelligence watchers. In the first one, The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus urges United States President Barack Obama to pause and think about the role of America’s foremost external intelligence organization before appointing a successor to General Petraeus. For over a decade, argues Pincus, the CIA’s focus has been to fulfill covert-action tasks in the context of Washington’s so-called “war on terrorism”. But through this process, the Agency “has become too much of a paramilitary organization” and has neglected its primary institutional role, which is to be “the premier producer and analyst of intelligence for policymakers, using both open and clandestine sources”. The Post’s David Ignatius agrees with Pincus. In an article aired yesterday, he argues that the personal misjudgments of David Petraeus pale into insignificance before the core questions on “intelligence goals and missions” with which the CIA is currently faced. During the leadership of Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, says Ignatius, the Agency’s paramilitary functions “swallowed alive” its intelligence-gathering side. And it is now time for intelligence collection to be placed “back in the driver’s seat” at Langley. All three voices make a good point. And they are quite right to be calling on the White House to address this, since the CIA does not determine the overall direction or goals of its operations. Rather it complies —sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically— to the directives of the Commander-in-Chief. Considering, however, that the paramilitary-style CIA of today is largely the creation of Barack Obama and his top security advisers, it is difficult to see how or why the US President would choose to dismantle his very own design.

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