The 911 Commission’s final report was dead on when it inveighed against America’s unthinking reliance on outmoded paradigms from the Cold War.
The 1990s were not a time of safety and peace, but of blindness. The U.S. government, and our nation as a whole, willfully mistook the fall of the Berlin Wall for the end of history. Guided by fossilized assumptions from the Eisenhower era, we refused to see the gathering threat of radical Islam. Even today, far too many Americans continue to evince a stubborn ‘failure of imagination,’ in the Commission’s apt phrase, when they try to make sense of the new world we face. (One thinks immediately of John Kerry, with his incessant chatter about the United Nations, European buy-in, the Atlantic alliance, and other intellectual relics.)
But even though the Commission generally nailed our ‘Cold War mentality’ problem, it came up short on one crucial dimension. The Commission failed to address adequately the need for reform in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO), also known as the Clandestine Service. The DO is America’s premier spy agency, sending covert officers abroad to steal secrets and disrupt our enemies.
In its final recommendations, the 911 Commission said the DO was in need of better human intelligence capabilities, stronger language programs, more ethnic and cultural ‘diversity’ in recruiting its operations officers, and other relatively incremental fixes.
A few months ago, these suggestions might have seemed adequate. But in mid-June, the head of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Porter Goss, made some startling comments in a report attached to the FY 2005 Intelligence Authorization bill. Goss, once a DO officer himself, said the Clandestine Service was a mess. He said it was in danger of becoming “nothing more than a stilted bureaucracy, incapable of even the slightest bit of success. The nimble, flexible, core-mission oriented enterprise the DO once was is becoming just a fleeting memory.”
If Goss’s observations are correct (indeed, if they are anywhere in the ballpark) the DO needs more than the measured tweaking suggested by the Commission. And when we remember that the CIA, and especially the DO, was built to be America’s Cold War organization par excellence, its need for reform is not surprising.
But the required change goes deeper than people think. It is not simply about adjusting to a wholly new enemy – one that is not a state, not a superpower, doesn’t use diplomats, doesn’t hold stable territory, and so on. While all that is important, more is required. The DO officer corps needs to attract and retain a different type of person than it did in its Cold War heyday.
To illustrate the kind of shift we are talking about, consider the problem of violence and personal hardship.
During the Cold War, the life of a DO officer could be dangerous, no doubt. Seventy-eight Agency officers have been killed in the line of duty, most from the DO. That’s quite a bit for a small organization slightly over 50 years old.
Nonetheless, threat to life-and-limb was rare for most DO men and women in the Cold War. KGB and CIA officers didn’t try to kill each other, no matter what the spy novels say. When I was in the DO in the early 1980s and ‘90s, the Agency trained me on a Browning 9mm and a Smith & Wesson snub nose .38, but I never carried a gun. Never had one in my house. None of my friends did, either. The only armed DO officers I knew were assigned to Third World countries with high crime rates, where common street thugs were the problem. Most people in the Clandestine Service were married with children, and normally took the family with them when posted abroad. If the kids didn’t come along, it was usually because the local schools were bad.
Not only was personal danger uncommon, so was physical discomfort. Much of the Cold War was fought in the capitals of Europe, where a DO officer would live the envied life of a diplomat. Even those assigned to the Third World enjoyed themselves – big houses from the colonial era, servants, plenty of extra money for dining and travel.
All things considered, life was good for an American espionage officer. It was civilized. The psychological rewards were deep and satisfying. You hobnobbed with witty intellectuals, and your adversaries didn’t hate you.
The world of today could not be more different.
For the DO men and women of 2004, there is no equivalent to the knowing smiles that used to be exchanged between CIA and KGB officers at cocktail parties in Istanbul. Today if the enemy discovers you are with the CIA, you can literally loose your head. Living in a warm house with your family won’t get you near Bin Laden, so you leave them back in Virginia or Maryland, and dwell in a hut out in the middle of nowhere. Or you don’t marry at all. There are few cocktail parties to enjoy, and little of the refined diplomatic lifestyle to savor.
None of this means the DO won’t have enough good officers, not by a long shot. There are intelligent, brave, adventurous, and patriotic young Americans who will gladly join today’s Clandestine Service and live the hard, dangerous life. We should all be grateful.
But quite clearly, these new men and women must be different from the Cold War officers who came before them. Another breed. They must steal secrets and subvert our enemies, just like in the Cold War, but their ‘sources and methods’ (to use that time-honored espionage formula) will of necessity be very different. They must use subterfuge undreamt of by Cold War spies, launch secret operations never before considered, and live a life that many from the Cold War era would not choose to live.
For the DO, coming to grips with this new reality means more than just incremental change. It means serious reform. The Clandestine Service of the 21st century cannot win under strictures and assumptions born in 1947. And if it doesn’t win, neither will America.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA. Email: email@example.com.