The CIA Becomes the “Tactical Intelligence Agency” as Lines Between the Military and Langley Are Blurred

The Central Intelligence Agency has been transformed into a tactical organization, pushing aside its traditional focus on strategic intelligence as it scrambles to remain relevant in this era. The CIA fears being usurped and marginalized when the national security community is increasingly focused on the “War on Terror”, which means identifying specific insurgent forces and developing the capabilities to neutralize them.

Former CIA clandestine services officer Brian Fairchild claims that following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the NCA’s (National Command Authority) interest in strategic intelligence diminished. Budgets—especially for Humint (human intelligence)– dropped sharply, and covert operations increasingly depended on receiving intel from friendly foreign services as opposed to developing our own indigenous sources. Too many in the clandestine service operated out of Headquarters at Langley—being deployed in areas of concern and grooming sources became increasingly a lost art.

Fairchild talks about “Field forward”, having assets and personnel in place overseas. “You cannot understand people, much less influence them, from Langley”, he opines. “You cannot develop deep and trusting relationships with individuals and with governments overseas by flying in and flipping out a U.S. passport”, he charges. He laments the current practice of “surging” operators to the field instead of having “an established presence”.

Washington Post op-ed writer David Ignatius adds to this theme by noting the rapid rise in the Bush 43 years of the Pentagon moving in to areas that had traditionally been the province of the CIA. US Special Forces units began operating secretly abroad, Secretary Rumsfeld created a vast intelligence empire of his own under Steven Cambone, and the Pentagon authorized having forward-deployed Special Forces units overseas.

The CIA became alarmed that is turf was being further compromised, and directed even more of its limited resources be focused on tactical, paramilitary, anti-insurgent operations. They saw their “paltry” para-military capabilities being dwarfed by the Pentagon’s armada—Delta Force, Rangers, SEALs, Marine SOF, and Army Special Forces. The result is that broad, “strategic intelligence” has been relegated to a minor place in the Intel Community’s efforts. There is concern that the appointment of GEN David Petraeus will only accelerate this shift to tactical, paramilitary ops.

I asked two of our own experts to comment on these opinions, former CIA “COO” Rae Huffstutler and former National Intelligence Officer Keith Hansen (both now in Incline), anticipating they would have some agreement and some differences. I was right.

Keith agrees with many of Fairchild’s key points, but has serious disagreements over much of the opinion piece. He believes that “Fairchild’s analysis is too narrow and lacks balance, and is too extreme and not supported by the facts.”  Keith believes that the CIA, and much of the rest of the US Intelligence Community, save military intelligence elements, continues to be focused on strategic issues that go well beyond tactical support to military operations.

The Agency did suffer from a sudden removal of its primary focus when the USSR disappeared, the primary target of its analyses and activities for decades. Further, Hansen points out, seeking the elusive “peace dividend”, the CIA suffered a severe cut in finances (as did the Pentagon). This resulted in essentially “gutting” the clandestine services. Hansen notes that the Agency had to fight hard to keep its technical resources trained on Russia, “knowing that the future of the new state was uncertain and its nuclear arsenal was still capable of destroying the U.S.”. He adds that the potential proliferation of Soviet nuclear weapons and materials was a deep concern to him.

Keith says that the CIA’s prized National Photographic Interpretation Center was transferred to Pentagon responsibility, increasing concern “that future imagery collection and analytic efforts would be focused too much on tactical military targets vice those targets that would support warning and strategic intelligence analysis”.

Hansen also observes that the reduction of funding resulted in “some tough decisions regarding which assets to keep”. The focus naturally shifted to “areas that were hot”; that is, of current interest, to the detriment of “being able to warn of tomorrow’s crises”. It also meant that the ability to “unilaterally recruit agents” and get first-hand knowledge was limited, both by exclusionary policies (e.g., Iraq) and budget cuts. The Agency found itself at a disadvantage in not having assets on the ground, but also because CIA’s personnel “were not well postured to provide the tactical, battlefield intelligence needed to support U.S. involvement in regional conflicts”.

Rae reinforces the points Keith made, noting that the tension between demands for “current” vice in-depth analyses is not a new phenomenon. After the collapse of the USSR, the Community endured a “period of drift”, in which “neither the White House nor the Congress were focused on new strategic issues, and during which neither would respond to requests for guidance on new priorities—I know, because I was the one asking”. He adds that while the clandestine services were reduced in this period, actually the cutbacks in analysis were much greater.

Huffstutler continues that many of the most advanced technical systems and techniques that were developed against the USSR at the Agency have subsequently been transferred to the Pentagon. These resources are increasingly used by the military to support current operations, leaving the CIA with some limited Humint capabilities.

Rae points out that “supporting operations in wartime” has always “commanded the largest share of our resources”. Inevitably the Agency could not provide all of the information tactical forces requested, some of which related to areas beyond the ground Commanders field of responsibility.

The Agency today also continues to look at issues of warning, arms proliferation, economic espionage, trade issues and political developments across a wide spectrum. This in addition to being very involved increasingly in paramilitary and tactical operations, sometimes working with and sometimes at odds with the Pentagon’s elements.

This is not to say that the para-military community writ large cannot combine its assets and talents to work well together. This was shown in the May 2 raid that killed OBL. Oversight came from the CIA; the Army Spec Ops aviation units flew the troops into Abbottabad; and the Navy’s SEAL 6 team provided the firepower.

Obviously we would benefit greatly from a future seminar on the “CIA Under Petraeus”, looking at the issues raised by Fairchild and Ignatius and illuminated by Rae and Keith’s observations. Perhaps the title is the “Possible Militarization of U.S. Intelligence”! Hope to do that soon, but Rae is on the East Coast right now and Keith is about to go on another mission in the Third World for his church activities. Maybe when the snow falls again and the two skiers are back in Incline for a spell we’ll do a session!

Tyrus W. Cobb

NSF Minister of Enlightenment


Link to the Fairchild article:

Link to the Ignatius article: Click here: Rewriting Rumsfeld’s rules – The Washington Post