Technology & Consultants Won’t Save CIA. Only Humans Can.

on September 3 | in Bureaucracy, CIA

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I understand that a website run by former members of the Intelligence Community who are looking to support informed debate about national security policies might not be the best place to quote James Bond.

But indulge me for a moment.

In Skyfall, my favorite Double-0 meets his new tech wizard Q in a museum gallery. The young Q, buy who looks like he might still live in his parent’s basement and play World of Warcraft in his spare time, challenges Bond in the following exchange:

Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.

Bond: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Q: One has it I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Old Grey than you can do in a year in the field.

Bond: So why do you need me? 

Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.

Bond: Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pajamas.

Most of us in the IC find Bond films amusing but not exactly reality-based. Invisible cars and motorcycle chases on rooftops, sure. But how come Bond never has to sit in a cubicle, pull up an antiquated computer system and write any of it up?

Still, this exchange is salient. As The Economist recently pointed out, spy agencies are relying more and more on cyber espionage. Running human operations is getting increasingly tougher but, in my opinion, remains paramount. With our dependence on technology, I fear the knowledge of how to successfully plan and execute human ops is slowly disappearing.

True, the IC needs all the tech support it can muster. With the People’s Republic of China (allegedly) hacking OPM and an NSA contractor able to download millions of documents with no internal bells going off and whisk that information off to China and Russia—Yes, Edward, it must’ve been a total coincidence you ended up there—America clearly needs to focus on counterintelligence. And that requires humans, not computers, to do the job.

On the offensive side, technology is a necessary tool that can be implemented in creative ways to boost collection. This can help, for example, to locate terrorists, their safe houses and other important people and things that haven’t made it into the news (yet). Indeed, when CIA Director John Brennan recently announced the creation of the new Directorate of Digital Innovation, he said, “We must place our activities and operations in the digital domain at the very center of all our mission endeavors.”

But don’t forget about human intelligence. It’s the second oldest profession for a reason: Because it works.

The CIA was already at the forefront of technological innovations and technical collection capabilities with its Directorate of Science and Technology, the people who invented a dragonfly drone and made it possible for Tom Cruise to peel his face off in the Mission Impossible movies. And the NSA is vacuuming up the world’s communications. There’s a ton of information out there. The risk now is that we might miss the trees for the forest.

That’s where field officers come in–or at least, they used to. Most field officers might not know how to switch on their computers, but they can find a copy of Playboy and a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue in a Middle Eastern country on a Friday during prayers. They can talk to actual human beings, gauge emotions, and ask questions. This provides critical context, making it easier to know if and when that shot needs to be fired or not (both literally and figuratively).

It is precisely because so much information is now available through other means that field officers are so necessary to protecting U.S. national security. Through technology, we often can see the same information our adversaries see. But it is only by collecting and exploiting human intelligence that we can know what they think and what decisions they will likely make.

Our HUMINT operations need to focus on that teeny tiny tranche of information not available through other sources. And that can make a difference.

But the competent field officer—someone who is skilled at traditional tradecraft and can apply it across a wide spectrum of operations—is an endangered species. For too many years, we’ve been sending case officers (or operations officers, depending on what generation you are and whether you ever called the DO the NCS) to war zones.

This paramilitary emphasis has left a generation of officers adept at watching Netflix and working out to Skrillex at a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan or Iraq, but has done little to develop and maintain institutional knowledge of tradecraft in non-conflict zones. In most places, officers in the field need to operate in, well, secret.

Yet in war zones or in particularly dangerous situations, field officers are not allowed out of a compound without an armed military escort. If you’ve ever seen an armed personnel carrier, you’ll understand why this makes clandestine movement a bit trickier.

Now, Director Brennan wants to create “well rounded officers” who are trained in multiple disciplines at the new “Talent Development Center of Excellence.” (Side note: Margaret Thatcher once said, “If you have to tell them you’re a lady, you’re not.” I think that applies to this new training center. Like when countries that are totalitarian kleptocracies keep adding “democratic” to their name. Look at the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea or the Democratic Republic of Congo. You’re not fooling anyone.)

Our tradecraft needs to become even more sophisticated, precisely because the digital age is making it harder than ever to run human operations. But instead of developing field officers specialized in how to run complex operations, the CIA is creating multi-disciplined and well-rounded officers at the new “TDCE.”

Additionally, the Agency’s current, inane, gargantuan bureaucracy (have you ever seen the move Brazil?) is making it impossible to cultivate the kind of creativity that is needed to run these difficult ops.

As I’ve written before, the Agency relies on metrics (and this is likely to get worse, not better, now that management consultants seem to be running the reorganization). Metrics must measure something. That something seems to be: how much electronic paperwork CIA officers can churn out. After all, more process must mean more progress!

Yet if CIA focuses its human operations on tiny tranches of information in order to get a decisive information advantage, it follows that the amount of information field officers collect will generally be less. That’s fine, because it will be more valuable intelligence.

But can metrics measure true intelligence value? In business, metrics can measure if a certain widget is making more money or costs less to produce. But when producing human intelligence, straight metrics—the number of cables produced or the number of assets recruited, irrespective of the quality—cannot be the final arbiter of value. And it shouldn’t be. So we’ll need humans to stop counting how much an officer did or produced and start asking what the officer did and what value it brought over the long term.

That’s the context in which we need to see our intelligence collection. It will require doing away with metrics and giving field officers long-term objectives, which in turn will require a complete change to the internal promotion system that currently relies on those metrics.

Unfortunately, Brennan seems to be pivoting the Agency to create multi-disciplined officers trained at the Talent Development Center of Excellence, placing technology front and center

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. But in order to better serve this country, CIA leadership should think twice about heading in this direction.


Alex Finley is a former officer of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, where she served in West Africa and Europe. Follow her on Twitter: @alexzfinley

photo: Real documents from CIA’s fake movie production company in Hollywood that allowed six U.S. diplomats to escape from Iran in 1980. (CIA)

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