Biden has his work cut out on intel front : The Tribune India

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Biden has his work cut out on intel front

President-elect Joe Biden needs to address why young and bright CIA officers are hesitating to continue in the organisation, as recently reported by a reputed online journal. It says that bureaucratic reasons have resulted in demoralisation among those who were happy with action-oriented ‘modernisation’ initiated in 2015 by opening 10 ‘Mission Centres’ under a new Directorate of Digital Innovation.

Biden has his work cut out on intel front

Tough task: The Director of Intelligence manages the output of 16 agencies. AFP



Vappala Balachandran

Ex-Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

Not much has appeared in our media on the great damage done by President Donald Trump on US intelligence services, which needs to be undone by president-elect Joe Biden. No US President in recent memory has so openly been at war with his own services, calling them the ‘Deep State’.

Trump exhibited this during his first presidential debate on September 26, 2016, with Hillary Clinton when he rubbished the charge that Russia had broken into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers. This was surprising as he was getting classified intelligence briefing as the presidential candidate, a convention which he later denied to Biden even after he was elected.

The second occasion was after his election, but two weeks before the inauguration in January 2017, when he was given a top secret briefing by the then Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper and his team at Trump Tower, New York. The CIA was about to officially issue their finding regarding Russian interference when Trump made attempts to persuade them to modify their assessment to say that the “Russian interference had no impact on the outcome of the election, which we could not, did not say,” as Clapper later revealed.

In retort, Trump tweeted on January 11, 2017: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” He openly let them down again in July 2018 during his Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladmir Putin by denying Russian interference.

The next occasion was on January 29, 2019, when CIA director Gina Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “at that point, Iran was in compliance with the nuclear deal”, inviting Trump’s ire. He tweeted the next day that the intelligence people were “extremely passive and naïve when it comes to the dangers of Iran.”

It is not that presidents before him had always accepted CIA findings. However, no president had ever embarrassed them openly as Trump. As a matter of fact, the CIA, unlike many other intelligence agencies, have a tradition of being apolitical in their analysis and not favouring any particular viewpoint of policy makers. Their tradition was set by Prof Sherman Kent, Yale professor, who was recruited from among the top Ivy League academics into the Research & Analysis Branch (R&A) of the Office of the Special Services (OSS) in 1942 after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. OSS became the CIA in 1947.

Kent had set very high standards in analysis and conclusions. He said that “intelligence must be close enough to policy, plans and operations to have the greatest amount of guidance, and must not be so close that it loses its objectivity and integrity of judgement.”

Robert Gates, the youngest CIA Director in history, records how William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s confidant, tried to dilute this principle as Director which met with resistance. Under Reagan’s instructions, Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared eight days after Reagan’s inauguration that the Soviet Union was behind all international terrorism. Only then he asked Casey for a CIA estimate.

The first CIA draft shocked Casey. It stated that the Soviets made distinction between national liberation groups supported by them and terrorist organisations, disapproved using terrorism and did not support the Red Army or Abu Nidal. Casey was so upset that he asked for a draft from the Defence Intelligence Agency. A struggle ensued and what finally emerged as an estimate titled “The Soviet role in revolutionary violence” was a melange of ideas including CIA’s original views. The New York Times reported this ‘struggle’ in detail on May 3, 1981.

Having said all this, Biden also needs to address why young and bright CIA officers are hesitating to continue in the organisation as recently reported by the reputed online journal Just Security. It says that bureaucratic reasons have resulted in demoralisation among those who were happy with the action-oriented ‘modernisation’ initiated in 2015 by opening 10 ‘Mission Centres’ under a new Directorate of Digital Innovation (DDI). This new directorate was meant to infuse “advanced digital and cyber capabilities in 10 distinct areas by harnessing operational, analytic, technical and digital capabilities.”

It claims that this “cross-functional model” in support of operations had resulted in great successes, ranging “from hunting down Osama bin Laden to countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” However, this new directorate has come in clash with CIA’s four traditional directorates, which are Directorates of Analysis, Operations, Science & Technology and Support, as the personnel working in DDI have to depend upon the traditional directorates for promotion and career advancement.

As one who has been studying global intelligence organisations for decades, this complaint seems to be strangely similar to the ones made earlier. In February 1998, The Atlantic Monthly published a piece by former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht who wrote under a pseudonym as ‘Edward G Shirley’ that he resigned from the agency due to its “corrosive culture in which promotion hungry operatives collect pointless intelligence from worthless foreign agents.” Like in the Just Security article, he directed his ire on the Directorate of Operations (DO) which was responsible for blocking progressive reforms and promotions to case officers. My only conclusion is that the clash between the different wings continue despite changes at the political level.

Biden’s announcement of Avril Haines as the new DNI has been greeted with widespread approval by intelligence professionals so far. She was formerly Deputy Director of CIA and had also worked as Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama administration. She was also with Brookings.

There is a common impression that CIA is the only major agency under DNI. It is not. DNI has the challenging responsibility of being responsible for the output of 16 intelligence agencies, many of them under the defence department. Under President Trump, this job was held by six individuals in four years, including an ambassador to Germany who held the charge part-time. That spoke volumes about the importance he gave to intelligence during his term. 


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