That doesn’t mean losing its counterterrorism role. Terrorists remain a threat, but the rest of the world is changing so fast that the president and policymakers down the line need the best information available.
More than 20 years ago, Richard M. Helms, the legendary CIA director, told me that one of the biggest mistakes the agency made during his tenure was to run the “secret war” in Laos in the late 1960s. “You can’t keep a war secret, and therefore a clandestine intelligence service should not be running it,” he said. “It also diverts you from doing our main job, analysis.”
Helms would have shuddered reading last month’s Washington Post story that Petraeus was seeking to increase CIA drone activities at a time when policymakers needed to know more about the political turmoil in the Middle East and the new leaders there and in China, India, Africa and Latin America.
Helms came out of the analytic side of the agency. Although he ran the clandestine service as deputy director for operations from 1962 to 1965, he was sent to that post after the Bay of Pigs episode with the aim of directing the CIA away from such semi-covert military operations and more toward espionage.
As CIA director from 1966 to 1973, his credo was: “Focus on the core missions: collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence,” according to an appreciation written by one of his top assistants, David S. Robarge. The piece was published 10 years ago, after Helms’s death. “Helms believed that the CIA is best at acquiring secrets and telling policymakers what they mean, but that covert action in peacetime can cause the Agency no end of trouble,” he wrote.
In recent years, new CIA case officers were quickly sent off to war zones. A former top CIA officer told me that the agency has looked more like the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II wartime intelligence agency, than the CIA, which replaced it in 1947.
A significant part of recent training of case officers has been geared to Iraq, Afghanistan and situations related to the worldwide war on terror. That has caused, as one former operator put it, “a loss of tradecraft,” meaning old-fashioned peacetime spying techniques.
The same thing has happened on the intelligence-analysis side. An emphasis on finding the bad guys who are Taliban or al-Qaeda or planters of roadside bombs has created a generation of analysts who “may see ordinary intelligence gathering and assessment work as just . . . ordinary,” said one senior official.
Inevitably they will have a letdown returning to a cubicle in Langley, the site of CIA headquarters. “They’ll miss the adrenaline rush, yanking on their Kevlar helmets, seeing an immediate kill or miss,” said a former official.