CIA shakeup a bad idea, some old spies say
CIA veterans say a report that the agency is radically reorganizing its spy service is probably overblown, and if it’s not, it's an idea that should be shot down, as has happened in the past.
U.S. News reported Tuesday that CIA Director Leon Panetta has undertaken “a major shift to reinvigorate” the agency’s National Clandestine Service, “potentially impacting up to half the CIA's workforce.”
The story was short on particulars but said Panetta’s plan was to lower walls between geographic divisions and “allow the nation's spies to move more easily from one group, issue, or region to another when needed.”
"These changes will enable the NCS to move its people to where they're needed most, whether it's to fight terrorism or to focus on an emerging hot spot," U.S. News said, quoting an unidentified “intelligence insider.”
But some longtime CIA veterans said the alleged shakeup is less than it seems.
“It doesn't strike me as a huge shift,” said a former top agency operations official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about personnel issues. “They have been pretty much operating de facto like this in recent years in order to accommodate Iraq and Afghanistan.”
CIA headquarters has always reached into regional divisions to find people for an emergency elsewhere, said Richard L. Palmer, a retired former CIA station chief.
The geographic divisions “never really worked out” in reality, Palmer said. “I was a European specialist, but they’d suddenly say, ‘You’ve got to go to Africa.’ The majority of people were shifted around all of the time.”
"I never saw anybody get locked into one division," Palmer added. "You could always apply to work in another division or get drafted into one of those transnational centers, like nuclear nonproliferation, counternarcotics and so on."
“The [U.S. News] article makes it sound like a new idea,” said another retired senior CIA operations official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It was tried in the 1990s and I thought later repudiated."
"[It] totally misses the real needs of the clandestine services and the IC [intelligence community] in general," the official added. "It is absolutely wrong-footed. What the agency/IC really needs is in-depth experts who really know their region/country's language, history, culture etc.--- not generalists floating all around the directorate. Good grief ! Don't we ever learn?”
Former Middle East operative Robert Baer seconded the need for more area experts.
“Let's take Afghanistan,” he said. “Here's a good curriculum for an operative: two years of training, a year on a desk, two years of Pashto and about five solid years in a country to start to understand the place. If in the middle of that you pull the operator out and send him to Cairo, you're turning the meter back to zero.”
“Believe it or not,” Baer cracked, “there are interesting people out there who don't speak English and don't Twitter.”
CIA spokesman George Little said the bureaucratic changes were necessary.
“This new model is designed to enable maximum flexibility in carrying out the full range of the agency’s mission, and it’s wrong to suggest that regional expertise is going away," Little said. "Combining regional and transnational skills are vital in confronting the national security challenges America currently faces.”
| February 9, 2011; 12:53 PM ET
Categories: Intelligence, Media, Military | Tags: Leon Panetta; George Little
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