The CIA embarked on a sweeping restructuring Friday that will bring an end to divisions that have been in place for decades, create 10 new centers that team analysts with operators, and significantly expand the agency’s focus on digital espionage.
The plans were unveiled by CIA Director John Brennan to a workforce in which thousands of employees are likely to see changes in which departments they work for, the lines of authority they report to and even where they sit.
The overhaul is designed to foster deeper collaboration and an intensified focus on a range of security issues and threats, replacing long-standing divisions that cover the Middle East, Africa and other regions with hybrid “mission centers” modeled on the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.
The CIA will also create a directorate focused exclusively on exploiting advances in computer technology and communications. The Directorate of Digital Innovation will rank alongside the agency’s operations and analysis branches, and it will be responsible for missions ranging from cyber-espionage to the security of the CIA’s internal e-mail.
In a briefing with reporters, Brennan described the far-reaching changes as “part of the natural evolution of an intelligence agency” that has not seen a significant reorganization in decades.
A central aim, he said, is to eliminate “seams” in coverage that lead to confusion over which part of the agency is responsible for tracking a specific issue or threat. After the reorganization, Brennan said, the CIA should be in position to “cover the entire universe, regionally and functionally, and so something that’s going on in the world falls into one of those buckets.”
The changes, however, are also likely to create turmoil at a time that Brennan and others frequently characterize as the most complicated and challenging period for intelligence agencies in a generation. Brennan said the plan has been received enthusiastically by most at the agency, but there have also been signs of friction and disagreement.
The head of the CIA’s clandestine service recently decided to retire abruptly in part because of opposition to a plan that would strip his position of much of its authority over the agency’s covert operations overseas and the teams of spies that it deploys.
CIA veterans and experts described the restructuring as among the most ambitious since the agency was founded in 1947.
“This is a major reorganization, one of the largest and most fundamental they’ve had,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former senior CIA officer and an expert on the history of the U.S. intelligence community. Lowenthal also expressed concern that replicating the Counterterrorism Center may also mean replicating an approach criticized at times for being too driven by short-term objectives such as finding the next target for a drone strike.
“Where in this does John have what I would think of as his intellectual strategic reserve, people not worried about day-to-day stuff but who think about what is going to happen two years out?” Lowenthal said. “The centers tend not to do that. They tend to answer today’s mail.”
But Brennan defended the reforms as critical to the agency’s viability in an era of technological and social upheaval. At one point he compared the initiatives to an effort to avoid the fate of Kodak, the company that failed to foresee the impact of digital technology on its film franchise. “Things just passed them by,” Brennan said.
Brennan’s plan was endorsed by others in the Obama administration who noted the advantages of allowing operators and analysts to collaborate.
“I strongly endorse Director Brennan’s vision,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said in a statement. “I see many advantages to this, but the one I want to highlight specifically is the impact this change will have in promoting integration.”
As part of Brennan’s plan, long-standing divisions focused on Africa, the Middle East and other regions will give way to centers of corresponding geographic boundaries. The Directorates of Intelligence and Operations — as the analysis and spying branches are known — will continue to exist but will function mainly as talent pools, recruiting and training personnel who can be deployed to the new centers.
“Some who grew up in the old structure will have heartburn with this, but those costs will be short term,” said Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA. Morell said that existing centers have “proven to be a very powerful combination” and that the Counterterrorism Center is “the most successful agency component over the last decade.”
The Directorate of Digital Innovation will perform a similar role, and absorb existing entities including the Open Source Center, which monitors Twitter and other social media sites for intelligence on such adversaries as the Islamic State, as well as the Information Operations Center, a secret organization that handles missions including cyber-penetrations and sabotage and is now the second-largest center at the CIA.
But Brennan made clear that the digital directorate will have a much broader mandate, responsible not only for devising new ways to steal secrets from cellphones and other devices, but also for helping CIA officers evade detection overseas in an age when their phones, computers and ATM cards leave digital trails. The head of the new directorate will be responsible for “overseeing the career development of our digital experts as well as the standards of our digital tradecraft,” Brennan said.
Brennan did not present a timetable for the reorganization, or provide names of those who will be picked to lead the new centers. Other aspects of the plan are also unclear, including how much power the new assistant directors will exert over CIA stations overseas.
Brennan began exploring plans for the restructuring last year, when he established a panel to evaluate his proposed changes. The leader of that group, a veteran paramilitary officer whose first name is Greg, was recently put in charge of the Directorate of Operations, one of several departments that will revert to more traditional titles after being rebranded in recent years.