December 13, 2008, Vienna, VA – This is the article I never intended to write. For former C.I.A. officers, the tipping point between debate-generating critique and “if they had only listened to me” pontification is easy to cross, and I had hoped to avoid the latter by simply refraining from attempts at the former. So let’s be clear, I am not claiming to have been prescient. It took more than three years outside the agency for me to truly understand its problems and to see a possible solution.
To start with the bottom line, the C.I.A.’s human spy business is not answering the hardest questions. How can I know this, three years out of touch with the secret stuff? The answer is rather simple: because Osama bin Laden is still the head of Al Qaeda. And no one has been held accountable for failing to catch him.
By the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, every serving C.I.A. officer – indeed, every American – knew that the agency had one prime mission: “Get him!” But, after more than seven years and billions of dollars, we have failed. I recognize much has been done to damage Al Qaeda’s networks but, make no mistake, no amount of “rendition” of bin Laden lieutenants can mask our failure to bring to justice the man who ordered 9/11.
There are other failures too, less dramatic perhaps but of even greater consequence. The clandestine creep of nuclear know-how threatens to put the worst weapons into the worst hands. If North Korea or Iran, or Shangri-La for that matter, claims the right to develop a nuclear fist, our intelligence services should know every detail about that program. Yet we collectively fail over and over again when North Korea tests a missile or nuclear reactor construction in the eastern Syrian desert come as a surprise. If the C.I.A.’s human spy arm was operating as a private business, it would be running at a loss. Think Detroit, not 007.
Why? First, the agency is simply too insular. It does not sufficiently tap into the expertise that exists across the breadth of America. The human spy components of the C.I.A. live in a cocoon of secrecy that breeds distrust of outsiders. This is one reason very few officers have BlackBerrys, and those few who do usually leave them in their cars when they go to work. Despite their reputation as plugged-in experts on other countries, many C.I.A. officers do not even have Internet access at their desks. Worse yet, they don’t think they need it.
Second, the C.I.A. has a terrible problem with quality control. When I was still there, for example, C.I.A. spies reported on several occasions that Al Qaeda had plans to attack American military bases overseas – in countries that a quick Web search would have shown had no such bases. Quantity outweighed quality as folks in the spy business focused not on accuracy or impact, but on increasing amounts of product.
And that brings us to perhaps the most numbing factor, the lack of performance accountability. In my years in the agency, I cannot recall a single case where anyone was fired for failing to perform. I cannot even remember anyone being demoted. There is simply no job-threatening penalty for mediocrity. Think of this on Jan. 20, when we’re likely to see Osama bin Laden sending an inauguration greeting to the new president.
So let me float a proposal borrowed from the business world. If you want to find answers to the hardest questions, why not reach broadly into the expertise of the country and assemble the best spy team possible?
On Shangri-La’s nuclear ambitions, it would probably mean including a few engineers who build our own bombs. They could make sure you understand the missing parts of the puzzle and how those parts may be hidden. You’d also want successful entrepreneurs – both American and allied – who know how to make deals in Shangri-La and can point you to others who deal there more often.
It goes further. Good freelance reporters know how to find sources to fill in a hard story. The expertise of academia, where decades of insight often go untouched, could be balanced with a seasoned detective or tough prosecutor adept at turning a crook. The more military the topic, the more military folks you would want on its pursuit. The spy business simply isn’t that difficult, and the sleight-of-hand techniques of the trade, some reaching back to Joshua’s spies at Jericho, can be fairly quickly learned. It is creativity, judgment and the ability to reach a goal on time that are hard to teach.
The agency would not lure these outside experts with a career or give them ranks or titles. That only breeds the ladder-climbing trap that sees newly minted C.I.A. managers, six months into their assignments, planning how they might climb that next rung. Rather, the agency could compile teams of accomplished Americans for a fixed period of service and then let them return to their respective fields. (Much of the work could be done over the Internet, allowing some of them to keep their day jobs.) Their incentive would be the chance to make a real difference, with maybe a decent payment at the end if the project is a success.
Yes, there are some obstacles here. Using “normal” citizens in a covert role could require giving them legal protections that may not exist right now. Getting consensus among policymakers and Congress, and isolating the hard questions from the headlines of the day, will be a difficult challenge. And, more insidiously, wounded institutional pride at the C.I.A. could generate bureaucratic knife-fighting by employees who would rather see the quest fail than give credit to “amateur” operators. The safe bet is that none of this will ever happen.
But is it not worth trying? It would certainly be worth breaking some existing rules if we could really assemble a better spying apparatus from the best parts America has to offer. When it comes to the hard stuff, we couldn’t do much worse.
Art Brown, a 25-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, was the head of the Asia division of the agency’s clandestine service from 2003 to 2005.