Brennan and the 'transformation' of the CIA


John Brennan, nominee for CIA director, arrives at a meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-CA., on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Jan. 31, 2013

Article Highlights

  • Senators should ask John Brennan not about the CIA’s paramilitary, but about ensuring Special Forces’ access to intelligence

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  • As the CIA continues its 'transformation,' its core competency — HUMINT — seems to be playing second fiddle to covert warfare

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  • John Brennan should say which he wants to pursue: more CIA military-style ops or more focus on intel collection and analysis

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Thursday, John Brennan will face confirmation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to become the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. If confirmed, Brennan will lead a CIA that is more involved in paramilitary activities than at any time since its founding. In the past, Brennan has voiced suspicion over the increased role of the CIA in drone warfare, yet these types of operations have increased under his watch. Good, bad or indifferent, this is a fact. It’s time to sort out just how much of America’s national security will be relegated to secret warfare under the auspices of the CIA.

Earlier this week, a Justice Department white paper was leaked to NBC news that reveals the administration’s legal justifications for the “targeted killings” of Americans thought to pose loosely-defined “imminent threats” to the United States. Because the paper revealed a startling level of comfort within the Obama administration over so-called “Title 50,” or covert, operations, and because, if confirmed, Brennan will lead the CIA during a time of unprecedented fiscal austerity, Thursday’s hearing presents an important opportunity to discuss an age-old question: Should the nation’s premier intelligence agency also carry out covert paramilitary missions?

The CIA and the military have always had a close relationship. The National Security Act of 1947, which called for the creation of the CIA, allowed for overlapping functions between the newly-created agency and the military services. The limitations placed on the CIA’s domestic activities were clear, but the limitations placed on its foreign activities were more opaque. The CIA was always meant to collect and analyze information for decision-makers, yet its involvement with military operations has differed under various presidents. On Thursday, Brennan should make clear which he sees as more important: an expanded role for the CIA in military operations or an increased focus on collection and analysis."On Thursday, Brennan should make clear which he sees as more important: an expanded role for the CIA in military operations or an increased focus on collection and analysis." -- Phillip Lohaus

This is a timely and important question. Over the last decade, the CIA has become more deeply involved in paramilitary activities than ever before. The last CIA director, General Petraeus, oversaw the “transformation [of the CIA] into a paramilitary force,” and most public accounts indicate that the military wing of the CIA – the Special Activities Division – has grown significantly since 9/11. Petraeus also called for a massive expansion to the CIA’s fleet of drones, presumably to support the ever-expanding mission sets shouldered by these vehicles.
As the CIA continues its “transformation,” its core competencies of human intelligence collection and intelligence analysis appear to be playing second fiddle to covert warfare. Merely 18 percent of its analytic staff and 28 percent of its clandestine staff are bilingual, despite the findings of the 9/11 Commission that these low rates of foreign language skills may have contributed to the environment that led to missed clues before the 9/11 attacks. And as the agency focuses more on targeting, fewer resources can be dedicated toward the nuanced and deep analytic efforts upon which sound policy decisions are made. How, we should ask, will Brennan ensure that these signature abilities remain the highest priority of CIA efforts?
In short, we probably don’t need an expanded paramilitary role for the CIA, because the capability to conduct covert operations is duplicated in the U.S. Special Operations Command. At a time when other sections of the military are shrinking, the Special Forces are growing. In Fiscal Year 2013 alone, USSOCOM will add 3,350 troops and civilians to its ranks, and the centralization of command and control currently underway within the command will increase the utility of these forces in crisis situations.
Rather than ask how he will continue to expand the CIA’s paramilitary forces, we should ask of Brennan how he plans to coordinate with the Commander of USSOCOM to ensure that Special Forces troops have access to the very best intelligence available. Rather than bolster its own paramilitary capabilities, perhaps the CIA, which is famously protective of its information, should find better ways to get essential intelligence to those who need it. The fact of the matter is that at a time of unprecedented fiscal austerity, building up separate and redundant forces within the government is not only questionable, it’s irresponsible.
In addition to vetting Brennan, Thursday’s confirmation hearing presents an opportunity to tease out the agency’s enduring priorities. The core competencies of the CIA—the collection of human intelligence and all-source analysis of strategic intelligence — deserve the focus of the next CIA director. Certain redundancies make sense for national security reasons, but with our current set of fiscal challenges, it makes sense to separate essential redundancies from feudal ones. Tony Blair once said “it is not an arrogant government that chooses priorities; it’s an irresponsible one that fails to choose.” Mr. Brennan, how would you choose?
Lohaus, a research fellow at AEI, is a former U.S. Department of Defense analyst.

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About the Author


  • Phillip Lohaus has worked on national security issues in both the public and private sectors. While in government, Phillip focused on Middle East non-proliferation and economic security issues and served in both strategic and tactical assignments in support of the US military abroad. He is primarily interested in forward-looking questions, to include future warfare strategy and capabilities as well as the evolving use of American Special Forces. He has conducted studies into foreign denial and deception capabilities and supported various war gaming exercises both inside and outside of government. He has received numerous awards for his work, to include a Joint Civilian Service Commendation Medal from USSOCOM.

  • Phone: 202-862-5932

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