What should a war-weary public think of a whole new spy service for the Pentagon? The brain-child of two wunderkinds of intelligence, the Defense Clandestine Service will ultimately field 1,600 personnel across the world. This sounds like a lot of new spooks. But the reality is a bit different. There is a primer of sorts of what this new spy service will do, and what it won't do.
(1) There won't really be 1,600 new spies. There are already about 600 or so Defense Attaches attached to embassies and consulates. They collect intelligence openly. They will now work more closely with their covert counterparts and are included in the figure that Congress has been given for the size of the DCS. Of the remaining 1,000 personnel, a bunch will come from existing Department of Defense intelligence collection agencies. DCS will incorporate some of the human intelligence gatherers of the Army Compartmented Element, which works primarily with the Special Operations Command, and the Defense Program Support Activity, which creates secret task forces to deal with the toughest and most highly sensitive defense-related intelligence problems. It will swallow whole the Defense Intelligence Agency's existing Defense Counterintelligence and Human Service. This brings the total of "new" spies to several hundred. They will be trained and fielded over the course over five years.
(2) The DCS will allow the Defense Department to focus resources on current and future problems that cross the boundary lines of individual services, like counter-proliferation. It will also allow policy-makers to devote more resources to national intelligence priorities related to defense, like Chinese efforts to modernize its Navy into an "anti-access force," or technical developments for its anti-ship ballistic missiles. It will be easier to create a government-wide strategy to collect all types of intelligence on developments that threaten U.S. strategic surprise.
(3) It is the logical culmination of 10 years of fighting a war where traditional distinctions between "national" level intelligence and "defense" intelligence are no longer relevant. The CIA actively engages in warfare-lite with its armed UAV program; the military collects intelligence on a whole range of subjects that were traditionally the province of the CIA, and has become the primary purveyor of "Indications and Warning," which basically means actionable information about immediate threats.
(4) The quality of intelligence about traditional defense threats. has declined as resources have shifted to non-traditional threats. The number of consumers for defense intelligence has increased significantly. Since DoD resources are on the front lines of "national" concerns like combating the spread and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it makes sense to ensure that those crafting policies are given intelligence befitting the status of their problems.
(5) As Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, observed when he served in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are few incentives for good spies to want to spend their careers with the DIA and plenty of incentives for them to build their lives around the CIA.
A bunch of people in the intelligence community don't like the idea of the DCS. Some CIA folks think that the DCS will duplicate what they do and wonder why policy-makers don't just expand the CIA's case officer ranks. A more prescient concern centers on authority. Under the law, covert operations are conducted by the CIA, while the military can do covert-like operations that are commanded by a military officer and serve a military purpose. If that sounds vague, it is, even though there is a statutory definition for what covert action is. To my mind, it doesn't really matter which part of the executive branch does what: what matters is HOW; these blended intelligence operations MUST be placed under a clear chain of command that incorporates an accountability structure and a mechanism for Congressional notification. It does matter and it is worth thinking about very carefully how military activities that are also clearly covert action ought to be handled; who can order them? Who supervises the missions? To whom are the supervisors accountable? Who grades the missions and how is the military chain of command affected by mission failures and successes? It has been reported that the DCS officers will be trained by the CIA and report to, CIA chiefs of station. Congress needs to figure out what this means for the military chain of command, which, in turn, is THE essential requirement for covert-like activities to be legal when conducted by the Defense Department.
Others suspect that the DCS is a backdoor way to circumvent something called the "interagency," which is the hyper-political, informal presidentially-directed policy process for deciding what to spend money on and how to do it. This is, I think, exactly one reason why the DCS appeals to a lot of people who study the idea: The National Security Council has been (historically) very bad at strategy, which means that military and intelligence priorities are often determined in increments driven by the political calendar. An internal structural reorientation allows the Defense Department some "give" to develop better long-term strategies … strategies that civilians simply don't have the political mindspace for. Note how quickly the undersecretaries for policy or directors of intelligence agencies turn over. Continuity is lacking.
A third objection is based on the assumption that more secret collection activities means more military action, which means more war and more dead people. There's reason to believe that the opposite assumption is more realistic. The more precise the U.S. intelligence community can penetrate a target, particularly one with defense implications, the more tailored its response to the threat can be.