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Keep the CIA on the path to 'modernization'

Von David Ignatius


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Washington - CIA Director John Brennan's biggest concern the past few years hasn't been Russian hacking, or even the wars in the Middle East, but what he calls "modernization" of the agency. In an effort to improve performance of this notoriously siloed organization, Brennan moved to fuse operations (the agency's vaunted spies) and analysis (its less glamorous but no less essential sifters of information).

To outsiders, this move may sound like a minor bureaucratic shuffle. But inside the CIA, with its fiercely guarded fiefdoms, it exploded like a grenade. The Brennan modernization triggered a mini-rebellion from some colleagues who thought he was destroying the CIA's clandestine culture. A few of the agency's senior-most spies quit in disgust.

Will Brennan's revamped structure remain in place after he leaves his post on Friday? Even as President-elect Donald Trump has likened the intelligence community to "Nazi Germany" and blasted Brennan himself as "Not good!" and a possible purveyor of "Fake News," the fate of Brennan's modernization has been a topic of intense interest in the corridors of Langley.

Brennan told me bluntly in an interview after Trump's election: "I think it would be folly - and it would be disastrous for the agency and our national security - if somebody came in here and said this modernization doesn't make sense, and took it apart."

Mike Pompeo, the Kansas congressman tapped to succeed Brennan, told the Senate last week that the reform's objective "makes sense," but there is "still work to do in implementation, especially streamlining decision-making processes." That was a wait-and-see answer that left Pompeo ample bureaucratic maneuvering room.

What's the right course? After interviewing several dozen CIA officers and veterans over the last several months, my conclusion is that Brennan's reforms should continue - but only with adjustments that eventually reduce the bureaucratic layering and duplication that his overhaul unintentionally fostered.

The CIA needs to be leaner, flatter and more able to operate secretly; some of Brennan's reforms instead created a more complicated and confusing organization chart. Analysts and operations officers have different skills and career paths, and Brennan's attempt to treat them all as "intelligence officers first" risked producing a homogenized culture with a duller edge.

To understand the CIA, it helps to think of it as a fancy high school. The cool kids on campus have always been the operators. The analysts were un-cool: brainy, fussy about their independence but socially introverted. It's telling that two former senior operations officers both described Brennan's effort as "the revenge of the nerds." The CIA wasn't exactly "Mean Girls," but it was close.

Brennan was personally scarred by this culture. A flinty Irish-American, he entered the agency 37 years ago hoping to be an ops officer but moved to analysis. When he talks about the operators in their "ivory towers," the anger shows.
Brennan's reorganization created a matrix that integrated all four of the agency's main directorates: operations, analysis, science and technology, and support. The gathering points were 10 newly chartered "mission centers" that focused on geographical areas, such as the Near East or East Asia, or on topics, such as counterterrorism or counterintelligence.

But Brennan also kept the old directorates, to preserve their tradecraft expertise. And that's where confusion arose. Analysts and operators still looked to their pre-existing silos for promotion and long-term career guidance, even as their daily work was done through the mission centers.

Though the new system was "more complicated," it was "valuable," says a senior operations officer. "We consult and no longer work in isolation."

Brennan took another reorganization step that won almost universal praise. He created a new "Directorate of Digital Innovation" to adapt to a world where technology has transformed the essence of espionage.

The October 2015 launch of the mission centers and the digital directorate brought considerable angst. Returning officers didn't know where they would land. Division chiefs and deputies lost their titles. The veteran officer who heads the Modernization Task Force noted some initial problems: "It felt like there were more layers, more bureaucracy, [it was] harder to get things done," he said in an interview. Last March, the agency made 14 "course corrections" in the reorganization.

Pompeo, the new director, will arrive with broad internal support and a clean slate, and without Brennan's scar tissue. He'd be wise to leave the organization chart alone for a while and let this agency do its job. For once, thanks to Trump's reckless comments about Nazis, the CIA may even have some public sympathy.

Brennan, by stubborn force of will, may have changed the agency more than any of his predecessors. What he leaves, though, is still very much a work in progress.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post".