A panel of White House advisers warned President Obama in a secret report that U.S. spy agencies were paying inadequate attention to China, the Middle East and other national security flash points because they had become too focused on military operations and drone strikes, U.S. officials said.
Led by influential figures including new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former senator David L. Boren (D-Okla.), the panel concluded in a report last year that the roles of the CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy services had been distorted by more than a decade of conflict.
The classified document called for the first significant shift in intelligence resources since they began flowing heavily toward counterterrorism programs and war zones after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The findings by the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board may signal a turning point in the terrorism fight. The document was distributed to senior national security officials at the White House whose public remarks in recent weeks suggest that they share some of the panel’s concerns.
John O. Brennan, Obama’s former top counterterrorism adviser, who was sworn in as CIA director this month, told Congress in February that he planned to evaluate the “allocation of mission” at the agency. He described the scope of CIA involvement in lethal operations as an “aberration from its traditional role.”
U.S. intelligence officials cautioned that any course adjustments are likely to be more incremental than wholesale. One reason is continued concern about the al-Qaeda threat. But another is the influence accumulated by counterterrorism institutions such as the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center as they have expanded over the past decade.
Even Brennan made it clear that the CIA will not relinquish its fleet of armed drones, saying in written answers submitted to lawmakers as part of his confirmation that the agency had a long paramilitary history and “must continue to be able to provide the president with this option.”
Still, the advisory board’s previously undisclosed report reflects a broader concern about central aspects of the way counterterrorism operations are being prosecuted nearly 12 years after they began.
Last year, Brennan led a multi-agency effort to impose tighter rules on the targeted killing of terrorism suspects overseas. In recent weeks, the administration has been forced to disclose details about the legal basis for drone strikes on U.S. citizens abroad amid an uproar in Congress over the secrecy surrounding such decisions.
The White House also is weighing whether to give the Defense Department more control over the drone campaign and reduce the CIA’s role, although officials said the change could take years and probably would not involve CIA drone operations in Pakistan.
The intelligence board is made up of 14 experts, many of whom formerly held top government posts. They meet in secret and have extensive access to intelligence officials and records.
Members declined to discuss the contents of the report, citing the confidential nature of the group’s work. But several expressed deep misgivings about the increasingly paramilitary missions of the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
“The intelligence community has become to some degree a military support operation,” said Boren, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who serves as co-chairman of the Intelligence Advisory Board. Boren said the deployment of intelligence personnel and resources has become so unbalanced that it “needs to be changed as dramatically as it was at the end of the Cold War.”
Another panelist, former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), said traditional espionage “has suffered as the CIA has put more and more effort into the operational side.” Hamilton was co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, whose findings helped usher in far-reaching intelligence changes, including shifting huge resources to counter the terrorist threat.
Now concerned that the shift has gone too far, Hamilton said that it is time to “redirect the war footing that we’ve had, the focus on counterterrorism . . . and go back to the traditional functions of gathering and analyzing.”
U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that demands on spy agencies have grown in recent years, driven by political turmoil associated with the Arab Spring, the cyber-espionage threat posed by China and the splintering of militant groups in North Africa. The pressure has been compounded by shrinking or stagnant budgets for most agencies after years of double-digit increases.
But officials disputed the suggestion that spy agencies have faltered in their ability to stay abreast of developments.
Shawn Turner, spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., said that despite facing “a more varied and voluminous array of challenges than we’ve seen in recent history,” U.S. spy agencies continue “to successfully gather and analyze the intelligence that helps protect us from threats around the world.”
Officials who have reviewed the panel’s report, however, said it documents numerous intelligence vulnerabilities created by the flow of people and resources to conflict zones.
The CIA’s stations in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the largest in agency history, with thousands of case officers, analysts and support workers assigned to fortified compounds in Baghdad and Kabul and smaller bases outside the capitals.
Those deployments have diminished with the winding down of those wars. But Boren suggested that there is a significant imbalance in “how many personnel and experts we have in places like Iraq and Afghanistan versus other countries of great importance.”
The need for better intelligence on China “doesn’t mean we’re going to come to blows” with that country, Boren said. “But in the long run, what’s more important to America: Afghanistan or China?”
Boren also warned that repeated deployments to war zones have warped the training of a post-9/11 generation of spies. “So far, nearly all of their experience has been in what I would call military support,” he said. “Almost none of it has been in traditional intelligence-gathering and analysis.”
U.S. intelligence officials stressed that counterterrorism accounts for only a small fraction of their resources. They said hundreds of analysts track political and economic developments in China as well as dozens of other topics.
Even at the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency established divisions devoted to monitoring Iran and its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon, officials said. But those efforts are still dwarfed by entities focused on al-Qaeda. The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center had about 300 employees on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks. In recent years, its workforce has hovered around 2,000, roughly one in 10 CIA employees.
Preston Golson, a CIA spokesman, said the agency was asked to take on a great deal of responsibility after the terrorist attacks. “We’ve met those missions and, with our trademark agility, we will continue to meet both new and traditional intelligence roles and challenges,” he said.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.