Center for Strategic Communication

Intelligence reform is once again in the air, and this time the bogeyman is the “militarization” of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As Mark Safranski notes, there is something deeply bizarre about the idea that an organization created from the bones of a paramilitary covert action force (the Office of Strategic Services) and frequently involved in joint military ventures with special operations forces (like the Vietnam-era Phoenix Project) should be blamed for engaging in large-scale collaborative military ventures. The frequency with which observers call for the Agency to reject militarization and pursue the supposedly more pure activities of intelligence collection and analysis suggest a lack of historical knowledge of the CIA’s paramilitary past.

The CIA was built to perform both covert action and intelligence collection. Aside from a brief period in the 1990s, the Agency has engaged in both. Creating and managing paramilitary armies, running off-the-books air forces and engaging in political action and influence campaigns has been the Agency’s bread and butter from Southeast Asia to Latin America and plenty of places in between. The military and other elements of the interagency has been a natural partner for the CIA, particularly in waging sustained and violent campaigns against sub-state actors. This is not to deny the importance of Sherman Kent and the Agency’s strategic intelligence mission. But focusing on Kent alone makes us forget that for every Kent there was also a James Jesus Angleton or a Kermit Roosvelt. And for every Angleton and Roosevelt there was also a MACV-SOG operator or a deniable pilot bombing a Third World battlefield in the Cold War.

It was precisely the lack of good paramilitary options during the 1990s that spawned policymaker demand for unmanned aerial vehicle strikes and greater interagency fusion between the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Note too that for better or worse, the Agency and its military counterparts have also returned to form in Central Asia and Africa with local paramilitary proxy forces and secret (non-UAV) air forces in geopolitical hot spots. Merely laying out the continuum of military/intelligence fusion in past and present eras of covert activity isn’t enough. What is needed is a framework for understanding why the Agency and the military remain so intricately tied together, and why paramilitary missions are likely to continue in some form no matter what is said about the benefits of rejecting targeting and returning to intelligence collection.

This framework is absent from 90% of conversations about military and intelligence fusion, and the debate needs better perspective. Let’s start with the purpose of national power.  There are many sides of power, defined at a minimum as the ability to shape the ability of actors to determine their circumstances and fate. Some aspects of power are inherently compulsory in nature, meaning they hinge on the capability to force someone (an individual) or something (an social entity) to do what you want. Others have to do with institutional heft or producing a ideology capable of mobilization.

However, the intermediary step between the capability, structure, or discourse in question and the resulting outcome is often some form of control. In counterinsurgency campaigns, it is difficult to build states without the ability to prevent the enemy from interfering. Creating such control requires violence when the violent objector to the policy objective remains on the field. More broadly, states have developed elaborate means of creating control over domestic and international social environments. As Erin Simpson reminds us, even architecture can help bolster state control over a restive polity through design that facilitates tactical advantage and movement by local security forces.

One means of control is information. Counterinsurgency theorists have often emphasized the importance of cartography, demographic information, relational data, and superior means of information processing because greater understanding an operational environment lowers the costs of control. The anarchist social scientist James C. Scott alleged (with a fair degree of infamy) that certain hill tribes in Asia resisted developing written languages in order to avoid incorporation into centralized polities. Counterintelligence and deception operations deny and misdirect adversaries in search of information. The phrase “information is power” is banal but there is some use for it. 

Intelligence analysis takes information and data and transforms it into actionable products for policymakers. Unsurprisingly, intelligence has always been tied to control, domestically or internationally. Strategic indicators and warning (I&W) helps deny control to a foreign enemy by providing advance warning of attack. The role of domestic intelligence in maintaining domestic political control is obvious. Intelligence does not guarantee control but it is certanly part of the requirements for generating control in a social environment.

Control can also be gained through organized social action, which can directly deny, disarm, destroy, or otherwise thwart an objector to state policy. Organized violence is a form of social action, but so can be a political mobilization, construction of an alternative institution, or calculated erosion of a target social structure or entity. Many covert operations use combinations of violence, hidden influence, erosion, and mobilization to achieve control. There’s a long CIA history of militarizing ethno-religious groups that are on the bottom of a given country’s power structure or arming insurgents and providing them with military support.

So what does all of this have to do with intelligence? Plenty. Policymakers did not develop intelligence agencies to do “intelligence,” a term that only represents a fraction of what many intelligence organizations across the world do. Let’s not confuse a given institutional design, which can shift radically over time, with core purpose. Policymakers have always wanted intelligence agencies, intelligence entrepreneurs, or specialized ad hoc groupings to improve their ability to generate control in the following ways: collection of information, manipulation, and direct coercive action, often in concert with other agencies. Special operations historian Simon Anglim lays out how covert operations fit in:

There are grey areas in which states clash short of open
warfare when use of subversion, sabotage and fighting by local proxies
may be a preferred strategic option to overt commitment of regular
forces; moreover, given that much non-violent covert activity aims at
undermining the target state’s military preparedness and will to fight,
and steering its strategic decision-making processes, there are
important strategic dimensions here, also. A covert operation, therefore, is a single mission aimed at creating a
particular situation in another country with concealed means and intent.
Non-violent covert operations create disaffection among the target
state’s population, weakening its will to affect the world around it, or
steer surreptitiously its decision-making via placing agents in key
positions. Violent covert operations include sabotage, assassination,
and paramilitary support of armed insurgency against the opposing power.

Many covert activities happen during wartime and in the context of larger military campaigns. During the Pancho Villa expedition Pershing attempted to use secret agents to poison Pancho Villa outright. The infamous Force Research Unit (FRU) used agents of intelligence to further British strategy in the struggle against the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The CIA carried out extensive covert operations of a paramilitary nature in the Korean War and did so in cooperation with special operations soldiers as part of MACV-SOG in the Vietnam war. And there was the OSS in WWII, the proliferation of specialized British military intelligence and special operations groups, and the operation of private air forces before US entry into the war.

Policymakers want a variety of means to realize control. When regular military means are too blunt a tool and diplomacy too soft, they will clamor for what they (rightly or wrongly) consider to be a subtle knife. In Ghost Wars, Steve Coll noted that every time the Pentagon could not give the President actionable options for raids in pre-9/11 Afghanistan without rendering the plans politically useless. In the eleven years since 9/11, successive Presidents have clearly rejected such a calculus and demanded that the CIA and the Pentagon work together to produce covert options for pursuing enemies of the state.
In particular, the line between the CIA has always been fairly porous.  As SOF scholar Nick Prime often noted on Twitter, military and CIA often combine to realize common missions, exchange
personnel, and closely collaborate.

Finally, like any good bureaucratic
actor the CIA jockeys to serve a pressing need. The most pressing need
today, as perceived by policymakers, is the war effort. Militarization goes beyond just adapting to the demands of policymakers, as a former classmate pointed out to me. If the President did not want a military-focused CIA, would he have appointed a former general to head it? And David Petraeus, unlike fellow General Michael Hayden, was not dual-hatted.

If the CIA decides to go “back to intelligence,” policymakers will rightly conclude that the Agency is only doing half of its job. It seems paradoxical to bemoan the militarization of intelligence when the likely outcome of muzzling the CIA’s paramilitary organs will be greater Pentagon conduct of covert affairs. As Robert Caruso once explained, it is not clear that this structure will result in greater transparency. DoD has many more ways than the Agency to frustrate such inquiries. A CIA weak on paramilitary-focused covert action will guarantee a more militarized intelligence structure than the Intelligence Community we have today.

Yet there is some merit to criticism of the CIA’s post-9/11 focus. The emphasis on the targeting cycle has come at the expense of strategic intelligence. If intelligence agencies cannot deliver deliver credible assessments of intelligence useful to the formation of strategy, they are also doing half their jobs. The strategic effect derived from post-9/11 covert action has also been mixed. Data problems make it hard to assess the impact of the air war in Pakistan, and in Yemen the covert campaign has been arguably counterproductive. There are reasonable concerns about the long-term impact of the CIA losing its significant institutional advantages in complex counterintelligence, non-targeting covert operations, and intelligence collection.

But blaming paramilitary covert operations alone ignores the fact that covert operations in war serve strategy. And when policy and strategy have an overly military character, it is not surprising that myopia will set in as intelligence efforts are shifted to fit operational demands. Covert operations in Vietnam and its neighbors were supposed to support an overarching war effort that in and of itself was horribly flawed. In Yemen the United States is the counterinsurgency force for the Yemeni government, and the failures of targeted killings must be considered within the context of Washington’s poor conduct of the overall campaign.

The focus on the targeting cycle owes itself to policymaker demand. Listening to some critiques of CIA/JSOC operations for militarization of intelligence, one would never realize that the nation has been at war for eleven years. If the CIA did not radically shift to support operational military demands it would have likely endured the same tongue-lashing Robert Gates gave the Air Force for not supporting the COIN mission. Nearly every element of the United States government was told to support the wars, and the CIA was no exception to the general rule. During times of war or situations in which the chance of war is high, policymakers tend to want the military and the CIA to cooperate to advance their strategic aims or otherwise help realize policy. if you want a less militarized IC, you ought to demand a policies less reliant on violent and/or coercive means. And in particular, policies that demand an expansive political-military effort across a large portion of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Finally, critics engrossed in the ethical quandries of direct action should not ignore the significant moral compromises inherent in day-to-day intelligence collection (particularly human intelligence operations). There is a reason why Americans have always been traditionally uncomfortable with intelligence agencies, and we have never quite given up the basic sentiment that “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail.” Intelligence collection has often threatened civil liberties, and convincing vulnerable informants to betray their country, group, or tribe is fraught with ethical perils. Today, the ethical challenge of human intelligence operations are often forgotten. But they were an omnipresent problem during the Cold War, and one recognized in even fictional literature on intelligence like John LeCarre’s novels.

So what to be done? First, any process of intelligence reform has to incorporate what policymakers fundamentally desire out of organizations like the CIA. In an ever more open-ended struggle against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, this will be covert action in cooperation with the military. The difficult challenge lies in resolving the Title 10/50 conflict and developing greater transparency while still preserving institutional relationships and tactics, techniques, and procedures built up during the post-9/11 wars. The CIA will also have to balance such demands with core intelligence collection and assessment. The frustrating part about this is that the CIA’s ability to pursue better intelligence collection and analysis is inherently constrained by policymaker demand. Another Afghanistan and we will be likely to see much more attention and resources focused on targeting. The fictional CIA honcho in Zero Dark Thirty yells “give me targets!” because he likely has someone above the Agency also breathing down his neck.

Most importantly, the United States must also understand that covert operations are also governed by policy and strategy as well. As Micah Zenko’s research shows, “discrete military operations” are effective in the context of an overarching strategy. And it goes without saying that covert operations cannot rescue a bad policy. Unfortunately, much of the history of covert operations in America is often precisely that–failed attempts to rescue bad policies with spooks and door-kickers. Covert operations have their limits and it would behoove us to spend more time trying to understand their inherent constraints. But setting up a false binary between a paramilitary and intelligence CIA won’t help us do that.