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CIA Reform and the "Collector of Last Resort"
Doing hard things means more than recruiting assets aka "spies."
This Foreign Affairs piece on Intelligence Community (IC) reform regarding China hits the right notes, but it doesn't go far enough with regards to the CIA's clandestine "HUMINT" (human intelligence aka recruiting spies) efforts.
The challenge is the CIA remains the "collector of last resort," (HUMINT) yet is pulled in “open source” directions based on its legacy as the lead IC agency providing analysis. It both doesn't want to give up that mantle and is expected by policymakers to retain it. Further, multiple agencies have been given overlapping missions to CIA and they do it poorly, leading to turf wars, setting CIA leadership constantly on the defense.
Because of this, CIA leadership, even at the mid-ranks, wastes too many mental cycles on clinging to an ever-shrinking monopoly, which leads to activities that distract it from its intended focus on HUMINT. Thickening the plot, there are misaligned internal incentives for its officers: what's good for promotion and field assignments isn't necessarily good for the IC or for our intelligence competitiveness as a country.
All is not lost, but much must change. As the quote from John Maxwell goes, "everything rises and falls on leadership" and, in my view, the Agency has a major problem retaining leadership at the mid-levels. By the time you get to the senior levels, you see the people who have simply outlasted the rest. While they may be good at navigating bureaucracy and selecting what’s best for their “careers,” they are not necessarily the best at "leadership" nor actual intelligence operations (ie, “spying”). There are of course exceptions, but be careful who you ask - everyone views themself as the exception to the rule.
It's on the few true leaders at the CIA to fix this. But where do they even begin? Their days are filled with being on the receiving end of unclear and, at times, conflicting policy directives, putting out internal fires, as well as those lit by external agencies, and figuring out ways to reinforce their position, or climb to higher positions of authority, because they see themselves as the only ones able to hold their finger in the proverbial dam.
But yet they must find a way. The good leaders that remain must accurately sift through what they can and cannot control. By design, they'll never control the DC policy regime. What firmly remains within their control is the internal incentive system and who they put into leadership positions. As former Secretary of Defense Mattis said, “Institutions get the behaviors they reward.” While constrained by the larger fact that the USG in general can't fire people, the opposite does not have to occur, which is promotion.
The CIA is expected to do hard things. And it does. Recruiting a foreign agent under the nose of a foreign country isn't easy, and I'd trust no other organization to do it as well. But this is nothing compared to the difficulty of holding its own people accountable for their failures by not promoting them, by not giving them plum assignments, and by not casting them off to another division as a way to "get rid of the problem." While this of course isn't limited to the CIA, it's human nature after all, the world's pre-eminent spy agency must do better, for all of us.
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