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Posted at 12:53 PM ET, 02/ 9/2011

CIA shakeup a bad idea, some old spies say

By Jeff Stein

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.”

By Jeff Stein  | February 9, 2011; 12:53 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Media, Military  | Tags:  Leon Panetta; George Little  
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Next: Egyptian police training giving FBI a black eye


There's a acronym for this, fubar.

Posted by: elgunjduts | February 9, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I second the observation that this has been the de facto means of organization since the manpower requirements for Iraq and Afghanistan affected a critical mass. Yet, it is the response to those very requirements that highlights the need for subject matter expertise. Heaping one non-subject matter expert on top of another, with a large dose of contractors with varied qualifications, has not facilitated success in either conflict. Quantity and versatility has not made up for a lack of quality. Increasing available manpower, without a critical examination of the quality added by manpower, does nothing good for the nation. Gains in efficiency and effectiveness could be found by a close study and revision of roles and responsibilities vis a vis DoD and SOCOM. In many cases, the demand for personnel is Agency-driven, not mission driven, as the Agency continues to seek relevance as an organization ill-suited to collection and analysis in a combat environment and oversight of paramilitary activity. More manpower has been a response to showing relevance in CT-related tasks no longer at the core of the Agency's capabilities. True enough, this would take some legislation to direct realignment - but the nation deserves realignment (which would also lend itself a bit to easier modes of oversight). Otherwise, this is just another reorg, from which the Agency and nation will not benefit very much.

Posted by: jdiyala2006 | February 9, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Maybe they are finally getting rid of the much-hated bureaucratic Station-Chief system. If so, that would be a huge step forward for ACTUALLY combating terrorism.

Posted by: niobiumstudio | February 9, 2011 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Reorganizing? When it's over, they'll give everyone a raise and hire more people.

Posted by: blasmaic | February 9, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

"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"

Ten years to learn one country? That's about ten times too long.

The idea that shifting from one country to another sets the learning clock back to zero is completely unfounded. With the right analytical framework, country specialists should be functionally competent on a country in ten weeks, not ten years.

Posted by: blasmaic | February 10, 2011 3:27 AM | Report abuse

When all the bureaucratic gobblygook is taken it, it sounds like a public announcement that the barons who used to be division chiefs are now being replaced by the new barons of the transnational centers. That is, subject experts instead of country or area experts.
If the NCS were an analytical unit, all fair and good. But as Bob Baer points out, the people you need to recruit are subject experts but not from English-speaking American culture. The rule has always been that an NCS officer has to speak the other guys language and understand where he is coming from, culturally. FOB Chapman is a good example of what happends when that rule is not followed.
Once again, no fundamental change in the way the CIA does business, but another shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Too bad -- they used to be able to do this kind of thing well before careerist, risk-adverse baby-boomer managment took over.

Posted by: DCNative41 | February 11, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

now we have industrial analysts...

Posted by: Rockvillers | February 14, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

"Polygraph" ...

Posted by: Howard45327 | February 16, 2011 2:27 PM | Report abuse

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