Putting analysts alongside operators gives them a clearer view of sources and the quality of raw intelligence. In turn, the analysts can help operators vet sources and gain a complex understanding of their adversaries.
But the collaboration also carries risks, including a concern that analysts may become too invested in the outcomes of operations, too eager to be part of the agency’s counterterrorism team.
There is also a self-serving aspect to the arrangement.
“When CIA does covert action, who does the president turn to to judge its effectiveness?” a former senior U.S. intelligence official. “To the CIA.”
In this new operation-focused era, targeters play a critical role. The job is more complex than it sounds, and involves assembling vast quantities of data on terrorist networks or other organizations to pinpoint their most vulnerable points. It could be a source for the CIA to recruit or a shipment that an illicit nuclear weapons program can’t do without.
In counterterrorism operations, it also means placing militants in the remotely controlled sights of Predator and Reaper drones.
The CIA’s skill and efficiency at doing so has given the drone program a momentum of its own. More broadly, an agency that some argued should be dismantled after failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war has achieved a standing as an indispensable counterterrorism tool.
U.S. officials said President Obama’s decision to approve the agency’s new drone base in the Arabian Peninsula and begin Predator patrols over Yemen was driven by the agency’s unique authorities and capabilities.
JSOC has been flying armed drones over Yemen for much of the past year. But those flights fall under conventional military authorities that require permission or at least a level of acquiescence from Yemen. The CIA is in a better position to keep flying even if that cooperation stops.
The administration is also counting on the lethal proficiency of the targeters settling into their cubicles in the latest addition to the sprawling offices of the CTC, a department focused exclusively on Yemen and Somalia.
“The kinetic piece of any counterterror strike is the last 20 seconds of an enormously long chain of collection and analysis,” said a U.S. official involved in the creation of the new department. “Traditional elements of espionage and analysis have not been lost at the agency. On the contrary. The CT effort is largely an intelligence game. It’s about finding a target . . . the finish piece is the easy part.”