Better spies, not more

A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

The Defense Intelligence Agency is planning to dramatically expand the ranks of its covert “collectors” — a.k.a. case officers or, more popularly, spies. It has 500 or so and hopes to double that number.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this plan, which is being pushed by the DIA’s new director, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. It is unlikely to lead to a militarization of U.S. foreign policy, as some fear — the military is already the dominant player in the intelligence community, with its control not only of the Defense Department’s DIA but also the National Security Agency and other high-tech outfits.

The real question is, will a beefed-up DIA make up for the intelligence community’s long-standing difficulties in acquiring high-quality human intelligence? On that score, unfortunately, there is real cause for doubt.


The problem is that the intelligence community already suffers from a propensity to put quantity over quality, the former being easier to order up than the latter. The CIA expanded dramatically after 9/11, but that has done nothing to prevent a series of embarrassing debacles, including Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the supposed halting of the Iranian nuclear program (claimed by a now-repudiated 2007 National Intelligence Estimate) and the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Even the CIA’s basic tradecraft has been called into question by the inept “rendition” of a terrorist suspect from Italy in 2003 that resulted in the conviction, in absentia, of 22 CIA employees who left their fingerprints all over the operation.

Granted, there have been notable successes, like tracking down Osama bin Laden and other, still classified, victories. But the problem remains that after 9/11 the CIA hired a bunch of young analysts and case officers who were patriotic and enthusiastic but also inexperienced.

As former intelligence officers have complained to me, too few of the hires have the kind of detailed knowledge of foreign languages and cultures needed to really understand complex societies, and their career paths conspire against acquiring such knowledge. Despite efforts to send more of them abroad, most analysts still spend most of their time in Washington, far from the countries they are supposed to be analyzing. Most case officers, in the clandestine service, shuttle back and forth between different stations in different countries.

All of this makes it extremely difficult to acquire the kind of granular knowledge needed to understand complex foreign societies, especially tribal societies in the Middle East, where personal relationships are all important.

Foreign-born Americans — Arab Americans, Iranian Americans, Chinese Americans and Congolese Americans — are more likely to have such knowledge from the start. But they find it hard to get and keep a security clearance because of the pervasive suspicions of the counterintelligence gumshoes. Thus the intelligence community tends to hire a lot of white-bread Americans who don’t have a lot of deep overseas experience.

It doesn’t help that most clandestine operatives work abroad under flimsy diplomatic cover. Operating out of U.S. embassies, pretending to be junior Foreign Service officers, hardly hides their espionage activities. But using “non-official cover” is much riskier and harder and therefore rarer.

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of highly intelligent, highly motivated, highly knowledgeable individuals work hard within the intelligence community to protect our security. But even the brightest lights find it hard to shine in a stultifying bureaucracy that has grown worse over the last decade with the creation of a new layer of management, at the office of the director of national intelligence.

Those problems have been amply revealed in the memoirs of former CIA officers such as “Ishmael Jones” (a pseudonym), Charles Faddis and Melissa Boyle Mahle. Mahle’s “Denial and Deception” bemoans “the rise of the committee, the anointing of bureaucracy, and the crowning of process,” while Jones’ “The Human Factor” laments “billions of taxpayer dollars wasted or stolen in espionage programs that produce nothing.”

Rather than continuing to bloat the intelligence community, it is high time for some prudent trimming — cut out a lot of unnecessary bureaucrats and create space for a few stars to shine. The intelligence community needs to change its recruitment procedures to hire more of the kind of brilliant men and women recruited by the OSS during World War II and by the CIA itself during the early days of the Cold War — individuals such as Julia Child, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Allen Dulles and many others who would not last long in today’s overly rigid intelligence infrastructure. The emphasis should be on hiring more foreign-born operatives and mid-career professionals whose accomplishments allow them entree into high levels of society and a cover for spying.

Simply adding to the existing intelligence bureaucracy is not the answer; there are more than enough individuals already on the payroll. The problem is we have too few of the right people.

Max Boot, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.”