CIA Director John Brennan’s biggest concern in the past few years hasn’t been Russian hacking or even the wars in the Middle East, but rather, what he calls “modernization” of the agency. In an effort to improve performance in a notoriously siloed organization, Brennan moved to fuse operations (the agency’s vaunted spies) and analysis (its less glamorous but no less essential sifters of information).
To outsiders, this move may sound like a minor bureaucratic shuffle. But inside the CIA, with its fiercely guarded fiefdoms, it exploded like a grenade. The Brennan modernization triggered a mini-rebellion from some colleagues who thought he was destroying the CIA’s clandestine culture. A few of the agency’s senior-most spies quit in disgust.
Will Brennan’s revamped structure remain in place after he leaves his post Friday? Even as President-elect Donald Trump has likened the intelligence community to Nazis and blasted Brennan himself as “Not good!” and a possible purveyor of “Fake News,” the fate of Brennan’s modernization is a topic of intense interest in the corridors of Langley.
Brennan knows the reorganization remains a lightning rod, but he kept pushing for it even in his final weeks. He told me bluntly in an interview after Trump’s election: “I think it would be folly — and it would be disastrous for the agency and our national security — if somebody came in here and said this modernization doesn’t make sense and took it apart.”
Mike Pompeo (R) , the Kansas congressman tapped to succeed Brennan, told the Senate last week that the “objectives of the reorganization make sense,” but there is “still work to do in implementation, especially streamlining decision-making processes.” That wait-and-see answer left Pompeo ample bureaucratic maneuvering room. Skeptics and foes inside the agency will no doubt try to persuade the new director to undo Brennan’s work.
What’s the right course? After interviewing several dozen CIA officers and veterans over the past several months, my conclusion is that Brennan’s reforms should continue, but only with adjustments that reduce the bureaucratic layering and duplication that his overhaul unintentionally fostered. The CIA’s old culture was broken, as Brennan argued, but a new version hasn’t yet taken root. That will be Pompeo’s challenge.
The CIA needs to be leaner, flatter and more able to operate secretly; some of Brennan’s reforms instead created a more complicated and confusing organization chart. Analysts and operations officers have different skills and career paths, and Brennan’s attempt to treat them all as “intelligence officers first” risked producing a homogenized culture with a duller edge.
When intelligence problems arise, there’s often a tendency to add new boxes to the organization chart. That’s what happened after 9/11, when Congress sought to connect the dots by creating a director of national intelligence to oversee the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies. Inevitably, that created overlap, because insiders insisted on preserving much of the legacy structure, too.
Trump’s designated director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, is going to revisit the DNI structure — and he should. The current DNI, James R. Clapper Jr., made it work through brute competence and experience; he has been an intelligence officer for more than 50 years. But a successor won’t have the same feel for the sprawl of agencies. Intelligence works best when it’s lean and nimble. In the secret world, bigger isn’t necessarily better.
Getting intelligence right may be the biggest challenge for the new administration. After Trump’s open war with Brennan and Clapper, the intelligence agencies are confused and demoralized. Restoring trust should be a priority for Trump’s national security team, but so should resolving the structural issues posed by the modernization.
What did Brennan’s reorganization do? Basically, it created a matrix that integrated the agency’s four main directorates: operations, analysis, science and technology, and support. The gathering points were 10 newly chartered “mission centers” that focused on geographical areas, such as the Near East or East Asia, or on topics, such as counterterrorism or counterintelligence.
The mission centers were supposed to knock down the old bureaucratic walls and turf barriers. Before, the operators had a Near East division, and the analysts had a separate office for the Near East. Now, the two were merged into a single center. Many companies have made similar reorganization moves, abolishing private offices and creating customer-centered functional units.
But Brennan kept the old directorates, too, to preserve their tradecraft expertise. And that’s where the confusion arose. Analysts and operators still looked to their preexisting silos for promotion and long-term career guidance, even as their daily work was done through the mission centers. Officers felt they had to look in multiple directions for approval. “When the world is getting flatter, the CIA is adding more layers,” complained one former senior operations officer.
“It’s more complicated to work with this system,” conceded a veteran case officer who is now a senior official in operations. (Like some others I interviewed, he spoke anonymously because he’s serving undercover.) He noted that “a lot of people complain about it” within his directorate. But he stressed: “The integration piece of modernization is valuable, a proven concept in the field, and we’re now bringing it to headquarters.”
Brennan took another reorganization step that won almost universal praise. He created a Directorate of Digital Innovation to adapt to a world in which technology has transformed the essence of espionage. Today, analyzing selfies picked off the Web (and other social media data) can reveal as much information about an adversary as traditional tradecraft. At the same time, unless the CIA can hide its own agents’ digital footprints better, spies won’t be able to cross borders at all.
Like so many directors before him, Brennan has discovered that change isn’t easy. As he told me, “There are some elements that are opposed to change, because they see it as a threat to the traditional way of doing things.” Repeating a line he has used often inside the agency, he said: “I don’t want the CIA to be the Kodak of the future.”
Brennan’s struggle to revamp the CIA has been almost invisible to those who don’t follow the agency closely. But it has been a bitter fight that amplified internal feuds that began soon after the CIA’s founding in 1947.
When Brennan announced his overhaul in March 2015, the old-timers’ first response was revolt. The operations chief at the time told Brennan that the changes would gut his directorate — and he quit. So did the head of counterintelligence, along with some other senior operations officers. Others who opposed change hoped to wait Brennan out. Among retired case officers I talked to, there was near-universal scorn for what Brennan tried to do. One described the reorganization as a “political “reeducation camp.”
The senior operations officer, who has been slammed by former colleagues for backing Brennan’s changes, insisted that Brennan was right. “I know what the former officers say: ‘How can you work in that place?’ I don’t have a lot of time for that criticism. They’re wrong, and they left.”
To understand the CIA, it helps to think of it as a fancy high school. (Once, that image would be have been an all-male prep school, but the agency is more diverse now.) The cool kids on campus have always been the operators. They were taught in training that they were the real shadow warriors. The analysts were uncool: brainy, fussy about their independence and socially introverted. It’s telling that two former senior operations officers both described Brennan’s effort to meld the spies and the analysts as “the revenge of the nerds.”
“When I graduated from case officer training 30 years ago, we were told we were the fighter pilots who carried the organization on our backs,” recalled a veteran operations officer who now heads one of the mission centers. “The cafeteria was divided in two when I came in. There were corridors into which analysts couldn’t venture without a letter on their badge.”
The case officers’ elite status often translated into disdain for other parts of the agency. Analysts were the nerds. Paramilitary officers were “knuckle-draggers.” Science and technology specialists were “gearheads.”
The CIA wasn’t exactly “Mean Girls,” but it was close. In 40 years of writing about the CIA in journalism and fiction, I have described it many times as a dysfunctional culture.
Brennan was personally scarred by this culture, and he has an almost palpable chip on his shoulder when he speaks about the need to give equal status to analysts. A flinty Irish American, he entered the agency 37 years ago hoping to be an ops officer but moved to analysis. For decades, colleagues said, he has been pushing for coequal status for analysts and operators. When he talks about the operators in their “ivory towers,” the anger shows.
“Director Brennan had guts. He saw what we needed to do, and he pulled the trigger,” said a former operations officer who headed Brennan’s initial 90-day study of modernization. This grizzled officer, who is something of a legend in the agency because of his bravery and daring, was denounced by some former colleagues for siding with Brennan.
The retired case officer dismisses the critics and their tribal loyalties. Agency officers who worked in war zones over the past 15 years saw the benefits of bringing analysts and operators together, he said. In places such as Baghdad and Kabul, “it didn’t matter which tribe you came from.”
Brennan was thinking about reorganization from the moment he left the Obama White House in 2013 and became CIA director. He waited a year to launch the project, but in September 2014, he asked a panel of nine senior officers to conduct a 90-day study of reorganization. They punched all the buttons, talking to 80 senior officials, polling 4,000 agency employees and conducting 15 focus groups.
But the mandate was cooked in from the beginning. Brennan says he envisioned a CIA version of the Goldwater-Nichols Pentagon reform that created joint combatant commands that melded the armed services. Similar integration had already worked in the CIA’s counterterrorism and counterproliferation centers; Brennan wanted more.
The study group recommended in December 2014 that Brennan start with a “pilot project” to implement the mission-center approach. The advisers shared Brennan’s view that the agency should move from separate silo cultures to an agency-wide “intelligence officer mind-set.” They also recommended a push on digital innovation and better in-house development of talent. But they didn’t want to toss out the organization chart.
Brennan rejected the advice to go slow. He overruled the study group and decided to implement a new structure wholesale.
“If you’re going to do a test . . . if you keep it in an antiquated system, then that is not going to allow that pilot to really thrive,” he told me. “It’s not going to be a fair test, number one. And number two, I know this place well. I know the culture very well. I bear scars. . . . If we continued to do things the old way, we would not be successful.”
The new mission centers and digital directorate were launched in October 2015. By most accounts, it was a chaotic start. Officers returning from overseas didn’t know where they would land. Division chiefs and deputies suddenly lost titles and status. Analysts and operators weren’t sure who would decide their promotions — their old bosses in the directorates or their new bosses in the mission centers.
The takeoff wasn’t easy, agreed “Chris C.,” the officer who’s now chief of the Modernization Task Force. Last March, a year after the changes were implemented, he led an internal “Taking Stock” exercise that noted problems. “It felt like there were more layers, more bureaucracy. [It was] harder to get things done,” he said in an interview.
The agency made 14 “course corrections” — such as limiting review of intelligence reports to no more than three analysts and restoring the directorates’ authority over promotions. The new digital directorate, meanwhile, worked to explain its mission better to other parts of the agency.
“We had to learn to speak in the operations environment. We had to learn a language,” said Sean Roche, the deputy head of the fledgling directorate.
Chris C., the reorganization chief, said that the reforms are now widely embraced — except among case officers, who lost their dominant status. “Where we see a lag is the DO [Directorate of Operations]. They are trending positive, but lagging behind other directorates.”
When Brennan departs, some of the passion for integrating operations and analysis will leave with him. The modernization upheaval has reminded agency officers that while they all share some common identity, their specialties are different. Analysts need to be fiercely independent; they must resist the groupthink that sometimes develops within a joint team. Operators need to be bold and manipulative; they’re the recruiters and deal closers.
Analysts and operators both need a shake-up, but they remain vastly different professions. Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, put it this way: “Analytic culture needs a more permeable membrane; operations officers need a less permeable one.” Creating a single agency that accommodates these internal differences will be tricky.
As modernization settles out, some old practices continue, largely for functional reasons. “The operational chain of command hasn’t changed at all. Operational decisions are DO decisions, but we consult and no longer work in isolation,” insisted the senior operations officer.
As many CIA officers told me, modernization isn’t a one-time event but a process. Pompeo, the incoming director, will arrive with broad internal support and a clean slate, without Brennan’s scar tissue. He’d be wise to leave the organization chart alone for a while and let the agency do its job. For once, thanks to Trump’s reckless comments about Nazis, the CIA may even have some public sympathy.
As generations of eager new directors have learned, the CIA’s greatest talent may be its ability to frustrate would-be reformers. In part, that’s a measure of any healthy organization — that it generates antibodies to protect itself and fight off intruders — but the CIA overdoes it. By pure stubbornness and force of will, Brennan probably changed the agency more than any of his predecessors did. What he leaves, though, is still very much a work in progress.