Why the CIA should get out of the killing business. Again.

With the top job at the CIA now open, it's time to redirect the agency's mission away from paramilitary activity and back to intelligence

D.B. Grady

With the new vacancy on the fifth floor at Langley, a robust debate has resumed over whether the Central Intelligence Agency should continue trending toward paramilitary activity and targeted killings, or return to its traditional focus on sending spies to recruit agents and collect human intelligence. The controversy was foreseen as early as 2003, when Robert Kaplan essentially argued one side of the discussion now underway. He pointed to the "old rules" whereby small groups of men overthrew large governments, and asserted that future technological developments will "make assassinations far more feasible, enabling the United States to kill rulers like Saddam Hussein without having to harm their subject populations through conventional combat." His contention: Such acts are morally preferable to war, and that "the war on terrorism will not be successful if every aspect of its execution must be disclosed and justified."

He concluded: "The CIA's military wing will never be large enough to do everything. Thus the CIA and the Special Forces need to coordinate their efforts more closely, under 'black,' or super-clandestine, rules of engagement. Not only should the CIA be greener (that is, have a larger uniformed military wing), but the Special Forces should be blacker."

The following year, the 9/11 Commission Report argued the opposite — that responsibility for paramilitary operations should shift from the CIA to U.S. Special Operations Command, if for no other reason than consolidating legal operating authority to a single point. Consider that seven years later, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was officially a CIA operation — the Navy SEALs were "loaned" to the CIA, though it was, in practice, a military operation. While such legal tricks are clever, no one is fooled. If bypassing the law is policy, why hasn't Congress revisited these laws? (Indeed, what might a simplified legal authority and oversight mechanism say about the extrajudicial assassination of U.S. citizens?)

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In 2005, Henry Crumpton, a former CIA officer, called the 9/11 Commission's recommendations "a bad idea." He pointed to the "core group of [CIA paramilitary] warriors" who survived the agency's post-Cold War paramilitary erosion, and who proved to be the "backbone" of the CIA presence in Afghanistan in 2001. Working alongside 12-man Special Forces teams, the Taliban government was overthrown in three months. Crumpton agreed with Kaplan's position that counterterrorist warfare requires "a stronger CIA capable of deploying experienced teams into terrorist sanctuaries... to collect quality intelligence and, as directed by the National Command Authority, execute covert action."

Bringing the debate to the present: The CIA is credited with a lot of dead terrorists, which to some is a metric of success. But the CIA is not a war-fighting entity; it's a spy agency, and tradecraft is an institutionally cumulative and perishable skill. And just as the 1990s saw the CIA's paramilitary capability diminish, today the opposite is true and then some. As Jeremy Scahill argued earlier this month, what once might have been simply a result of the agency's mission creep has of late been an attempt at decisive transformation. The CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have spent the last 11 years fighting over turf. Upon confirmation as director of the CIA, David Petraeus worked hard to seize ground for the CIA — to become a "major player" in covert action. He stepped up the drone program, and according to one State Department liaison, sought to create "a mini-Special Operations Command that purports to be an intelligence agency."

Glenn L. Carle, a 23-year veteran of the CIA Clandestine Service and former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats, tells The Week that U.S. foreign policy "has slowly, but consistently become progressively shaped, if not led, by the U.S. military." He calls the trend "disturbing," and adds, "The CIA's paramilitary activities, and in recent years drone programs and close coordination with JSOC, are parts of this trend." He says that while the CIA has a legitimate role in paramilitary operations and the drone program, its "core mission is intelligence collection, not lethal or paramilitary activities."

Such operations "must be rare; for the political consequences can be significant, as is always the case with 'covert' operations."

For comparison, few would argue that the Mossad, the intelligence agency of Israel, is ineffective. Its two flagship operational divisions are human intelligence and special operations, the latter of which conducts deep-cover operations in target countries. And yet, Michael Ross, a former Mossad officer who later served as its counterterrorism liaison to the CIA, tells The Week that it is only in extraordinary circumstances that Mossad special operations work hand-in-glove with Israel Defense Forces special operations forces. "Despite the Mossad's reputation, these types of operations comprise a tiny percentage of what it as an organization actually does in the intelligence milieu. This is in contrast to the CIA which is increasingly using its intelligence collection capability for the purposes of supporting the drone and special operations programs." The result is "great intelligence on al Qaeda targets to be killed by a drone strike and very little about what al Qaeda is actually doing on the ground in terms of plans, intentions and goals."

"When you replace the imperative of determining enemy intentions with gathering actionable intelligence for reasons of operational expediency, you're not providing policymakers with what they need to know in order to make informed decisions."

Considering that the whole reason the CIA was founded was to provide the president with information he needed to know in order to make informed decisions, its present course should give policymakers pause. Perhaps the presently vigorous debate might even spur into action a Congress that has been criminally negligent in its oversight responsibility.

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