The Obama Administration's aggressive anti-leak campaign has further polarized an already fractious community of national security commentators. On one side, as Joshua Foust noted, DC's national security press corps and many national security commentators see the surveillance and investigation as a threat to the very ability of the press to check a naturally over-secretive mil-intel complex. This has not resonated with many national security professionals who chafe at the idea that the press ought to be arbiter of which classified information can be leaked. There is truth in both stances, but also plenty of misdirection.
The story of how leaking became an integral part of DC’s political economy is the story of modern American politics. Like the proverbial Great American Novel, it's a story that must necessarily invoke a tapestry of both American and world-systemic social, cultural, economic, and political forces. There are no heroes and villains. Instead, a complex interplay of institutions, processes, and power struggles led to the counterproductive and self-defeating hounding of Fox News reporter James Rosen.
And if TL:DR is your thing, I'm sorry. There's been so much BS on this subject that it needs to be discussed at a Trombly-esque length.
Washington DC is an ecosystem shaped by intense intra-elite competition. In such an environment, distinguished by compartmented and stovepiped access to knowledge concerning the machinery of government, control of information (which includes leaks) offers both political currency and psychological validation. How it got that way, and how the current dueling narratives of security and press freedom mask such grubby competition, is probably a more fascinating story than the leaks themselves.
The real error inherent in Rosen’s plight is not a story of Nixon 2.0, but rather of national security policy that—as in AfPak and Yemen—suffers from a lack of attention to the larger political context, “human terrain,” and second and third-order effects.
The Pure Science of Politics
Politics is the process that governs the all important question of “who gets what, when, and how.” Classical social thinkers such as Machiavelli, Pareto, and C. Wright Mills have all recognized the centrality of elites to political dynamics---with alternatively praiseworthy and conspiratorial interpretations. A review of political thought, history, and political science shows that the business of politics is neither the conspiracy of fat cats populists imagine or the morality tale of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. It’s just politics. As Truman famously said, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
The very logic of political life creates a natural base of elites. As the political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita wrote in The Logic of Political Survival, there is inevitably a "winning coalition" in domestic politics that keeps the incumbent in power. However, this coalition must be provided with private goods in order to be kept pliant. Therefore, the coalition must be kept as small as possible. A small winning coalition is impossible in a democracy, which partially explains the instability of democratic governing coalitions. Furthermore, even in democracies political advantage goes to small, tightly knit networks which do not face collective action problems and are linked by superior social capital. Such networks tend to triumph even in the face of larger—but more disorganized—political opposition.
Beyond the winning coalition, specific kinds of elites also matter. From a historical perspective, several kinds of elites (this is not an exclusive list) recur in American democracy. First, those figures who can understand and mobilize cohesive networks are worth their weight in gold. Abraham Lincoln was so dependent on these political figures that he gave them battlefield commissions during the Civil War. Note how Rahm Emanuel, the consummate political fixer, walked the halls of power with admirals, spies, and cabinet members. The dawn of the industrial age produced another set of elites with power over the massive industrial, scientific, financial, and corporate structure that emerged as a consequence of America's rise to greatness.
As interwar historians note, both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned an enlightened alliance of these elites with a third elite type--government technocrats--as the key to stabilizing American society that was undergoing dramatic economic, political, and cultural changes. Government technocrats arose as a consequence of the need to govern an increasingly complex society. They provided technical knowledge and ruled bureaucratic organizations governed by impersonal rules.
One of the many technical arms of government created to cope with both external changes in the international system and a more complex domestic picture was the military-industrial-intelligence complex. While the US continued to develop the military and intelligence backbone capable of exerting power abroad, J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) mobilized at home against both political radicals and heavily armed gangsters.
Technocrats and industrial age elites, both Hoover and FDR reasoned, could together stabilize an increasingly fractious America. The disruptive nature of these domestic and international changes is often glossed over. It was a time in which American government was rocked by corruption more characteristic by "bags of money" Kabul than Andy of Mayberry, roiling class war, massive crime, and divisive sociocultural conflicts. It was no wonder that intellectuals of the time, to put it bluntly, were pretty damn scared of the future.
While Hoover's vision of a small government that facilitated elite cooperation differed from FDR's more activist ideology, elite agreement was key to success for both presidents. The arrangement FDR helped formalize generated what was called the "consensus" era of American history, often remembered with great nostalgia as a time of economic equality, cultural agreement, and political comity. Of course, such a consensus was not good for everyone. The original title and deed to my family home in California explicitly barred Jews from moving into the neighborhood, to say nothing of African-Americans, Chicanos, and Asian-Americans. This was the high point of the era of smoke-filled rooms and popular diatribes about the "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit."
However, the biggest problem inherent in a new and massive bureaucracy is that it provided an ample space for elite competition. Sure, there was the ordinary grappling of social climbers. Factional interests, as organizational theory would predict, soon came to the fore. These natural tendencies are also bolstered by the nature of American democracy’s separation of powers. Ironically, the very discord and bureaucratic buck-passing that we decry is our best insurance against developing a unified “deep state” akin to that of Turkey or the former Communist world.
But bureaucratic factionalism and elite competition makes governance difficult. This problem created a particular demand for those who could impose political direction on the machinery of government. While Graham Allison over-exaggerates the power of bureaucratic "operational codes," it is significant that the lawyer Bobby Kennedy laid down his brother's law during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
A Finger in the Fulcrum
What kind of person “fixes” the machine? What kind of knowledge enables mastery over it? The problem with government lies in its vast and complex expanse, tiered and access-restricted compartments, and tendency towards debilitating friction as the mighty gears spin. As the political scientist James C. Scott might say, such an arcane structure creates a problem of legibility. One must first read the machine in order to do something with it.
The power of Big Data lies in the ability of tools like Hadoop to assemble, structure, and exploit large quantities of unstructured and distributed data. The ability to read, structure, understand, and exploit the rough, distributed data of government and convert it into value is the essence of political intelligence. He who can both make sense out of such information and freely access it has power over the machine. In turn, his opponents will seek, like Scott’s semi-mythical Zomians, to render themselves unreadable and amorphous through manipulation and control of information.
Beneath the layer of competing bureaucratic identity lies another type of faction, the trust network. Theorized by the sociologist Charles Tilly, the trust network is a small group of individuals that resist control of more powerful authorities through various strategies of erosion, evasion, and misdirection. Trust networks exist everywhere where large-scale cooperation is difficult. Trust networks certainly have always existed within government, particularly those centered around charismatic personalities that carve out their own domains.
The importance of access to information is why figures within the Bush administration created the Office of Special Plans. With the intelligence community unsympathetic to their political aims, they needed their own channel of raw information to exercise control over Iraq war policy. However, this practice is far more common than many Bush-bashers realize. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s monopoly over military-intelligence information in the run-up to World War II and his own highly questionable usage of such information dwarfs anything seen in the last ten years. Roosevelt, acting mostly in secret, waged both naval and air proxy war against the Axis and tolerated a massive British strategic influence and spying campaign directed against American citizens.
The rise of a more technically complex government governed by stovepiped, access-controlled information was paralleled by the simultaneous genesis of a science of persuasion. The communication thinkers of the early 20th century, many of whom had served in World War I propaganda organizations, believed that the citizens of a mass society needed guidance and influence to make a dizzying array of decisions both serious and mundane. The science of public relations and advertising, as Edward Bernays wrote, was about giving guidance to a citizen alone in a dauntingly complex and interlinked world where even the daily experience of urban living assaulted the senses.
This field gave birth to what we know today as the political communications discipline---e.g. lobbyists. Lobbyists combined a knack for moving the gears of government with the scientific knowledge of mass communication developed in the mid-20th century. They were a harbinger of greater changes to come.
Out of Eden
For a variety of both domestic and international political, economic, cultural, and societal reasons too complex to examine in a single blog post, the postwar consensus era could not last. As George Packer argues, this left the elites who had previously agreed on the nature of things scrambling to protect their interests. Second, there was also a shift in the nature of the elites themselves. Peter Turchin, piggybacking on Chris Hayes’ book The Twilight of the Elites, notes that a different explanation may help explain the dysfunction we see today besides the moral turpitude often alleged by establishment critics.
Intensified intra-elite competition for increasingly scarce positions granting access to wealth and influence is also a consequence of an exponential increase in those seeking to become elites. As Hayes observed, a more meritocratic education system would inevitably produce more aspirants than jobs. The erosion of a consensus that mitigated towards cooperation produced greater dysfunction. Turchin, an ecologist by trade, notes that the mathematical Price Equation suggests internal competition can have a deleterious effect on group altruism and cohesion. Competing trust networks, always a part of political and social life, blossomed throughout fields of importance.
The macrotrends behind the rise of intra-elite competition and the end of consensus accelerated existing lobbying, bureaucratic warfare, and partisan competition into something more characteristic of the “bad old days” prior to the midcentury consensus. However, new tools of mass influence and the exponential increase in the complexity of the governmental sphere upped the stakes. The modern political world, like Wall Street, became a complex ecosystem driven by similar dynamics of bubbles, crashes, and insider information. And just like Wall Street’s dynamics created the rise of advanced technologies and wizards (often falsely) claiming to offer scientific mastery over social process, the intense competition of political life generated political technology and political alchemists that also offered their clients the power to turn electoral lead into gold.
In such an environment, both the national security and domestic political worlds face strikingly similar problems. Bueno de Mesquita’s “winning coalition” in a democracy is both large and must be pacified with private goods. This inherently makes the coalition unstable. Such logic of instability also applies to the governmental sphere. A large amount of men and women must cooperate together to make the machine run. Many require access to valuable information in order to do their jobs. But the incentive to use such information for gain is immense and can overcome even the most tight-knit social and cultural bonds.
Even "quiet professionals" such as special operations soldiers and intelligence operatives blab to the press. Each leak generates more stovepiping and “plumbing,” unintentionally yet inevitably raising the market value of secret information ever higher. Why? It’s not just about bureaucratic, partisan, or even financial advantage. Hoarding, manipulating, and leaking information also offers psychological validation. I leak, therefore I am.
Take the Wikileaks informant and military intelligence peon Bradley Manning. Unhappy with his personal life and US foreign policy, he began to hoard national security information. Though a gnat within the military-industrial complex, Manning’s information was valuable enough to someone to turn him into a celebrity. Now he elicits attention and sympathy from elites who would otherwise disregard a lowly soldier toiling away in the vast intelligence information database known as JWICS.
Mark Felt’s Children
So what does this all have to do with the misfortune of Fox News reporter James Rosen? The hunt for leakers makes for a debate in which two theologies—the gospel of national security and the gospel of the muckraking press—now clash head-to-head. But holy writ alone does not grant much insight.
No one would deny the importance of operational security. Yet it is still both hoarded and leaked flagrantly to grant power and advantage. Similarly, the closest thing the modern DC press has to an origin myth is the Watergate scandal. The simple version of the myth is that the press serves as a check on abuses of government power, shining a powerful light into the darkness that shrouds the machinery of state. The reality is more complex. Without a means of utilizing their hard-won information, elites within government cannot compete. Bureaucratic warfare cannot be waged without a megaphone.
Such a megaphone must also be discreet. The difference between, say, the bureaucratic warrior Mark Felt (known more popularly as “Deep Throat”) and a troubled soul like Bradley Manning is truly vast. The amateurish Manning poured his soul out to a complete stranger he met on the Internet. A man of Felt’s stature, however, had to protect himself. He needed a conduit to discreetly utilize his information without risk to himself. Blocked from moving up in the hierarchy, Felt’s confidential information could only become valuable outside the government. Enter the Washington Post.
To this day, it is striking how much Felt, for all of his pivotal impact on history, was just another DC bureaucratic leaker. Operating out of a complex mixture of principle, bureaucratic maneuvering, and personal ambition, Felt effectively made the Post his mouthpiece and became a world-historical figure. Felt, in some respects, was also little better than the Nixon officials he denounced. He authorized black-bag jobs against domestic radicals, and was convicted of conspiracy in 1980 when he refused (at least in court) to rat out his superiors. Was he principled or mercenary? No one will ever know. But the CIA, SVR, and Mossad operatives who recruit spies deal every day with Felt-like characters.
For every Watergate, Iran-Contra, or Abu Ghraib there are likely ten to twenty (a conservative and charitable estimate) exercises in puerile partisanship and bureaucratic finger-pointing like Benghazi enabled by the political press. Indeed, some in the press have used their privileged access to elite information to become elites themselves. Journals such as Politico derive their very prominence by a claim to soothsay the pulse of “the town.” Despite the theology of investigative journalism, the press—like many other DC institutions—is a prominent vehicle for intra-elite competition. Inasmuch as it makes such competition possible, it contributes to the very dysfunction journalists often decry.
Seen in this light, the troubling overreach inherent in the Rosen affair becomes a microcosm of the larger tragedy of American national security. The government, seeking to exercise control over a dysfunctional and fractious bureaucracy, took affirmative action. However, like the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, such a struggle inherently juxtaposed an amorphous yet ambitious strategic aim with limited ways and means. Now we have come to the point where a blunt and dangerous tool like the Espionage Act has been deployed.
Like a Cold War security standoff, the use of special technical means to combat leaks will surely generate a counterintelligence arms race as journalists (some of whom have extensive experience in combat zones) deploy advanced tradecraft to get their scoops. In turn, such new tradecraft could very well provoke more advanced and counterproductive government “plumbing.” The greater stovepiping that inevitably results also harms interagency cooperation and increases the market value of leaks by making such information more rare and valuable.
The endpoint of such a struggle surely does not benefit either national security or freedom of the press. Yet this is where we are---if the Rosen investigation says anything--are headed. Leaking, like many other crimes, will ultimately be managed rather than eradicated. The struggle to eradicate leaks has far-reaching consequences for both the information the government seeks to protect and freedoms beyond the investigative press's undeniable self-interest.
For the government prudent mitigation will be key to both the preservation of operational security and the preservation of press freedom. The government will have to be more skillful and strategic about how it protects its secrets. Difficult intelligence targets such as North Korea and al-Qaeda cannot be penetrated in an environment of rampant leaking. But in the case of Rosen, the cure may be worse than the disease. Leaks are an undeniable scourge. But acting without a plan that considers the political context does not do anyone any favors.
The first step towards progress is realizing that the problem is far bigger than the AP or Fox News alone, and that mythologies and holy gospels do not provide a sound basis for balancing liberty and security. However, at the moment—as with Benghazi, drones, and other contentious subjects—we can’t expect much more out of the “war of ideas” besides preaching to the choir.
Here is another way of understanding some of the common themes that Dan Trombly and I have written about during our brief time blogging on Abu Muquwama:
For the purpose of argument, imagine American governance as a kind of market. A political process produces policy, and formulated policy has implications for the nature of the services required to implement it. Certainly there is nothing intrinsically valid about the preferences generated by a political process. The process itself is the product of a neverending struggle for influence between many kinds of governmental and extra-governmental actors. But provided that preferences hold constant and those who provide what policymaker preferences entail are rewarded with substantial material, psychological, or status benefits.....the need will likely be provided.
National security is a lucrative area where benefits can quickly and massively accrue to actors that fit policymaker needs. While undeniably true in the United States, it is even more true elsewhere in the world. The most lavishly rewarded American general is a pauper when measured against the mil/intel supremos that underpin Middle Eastern autocracies. What type of actor fulfills the stated need, and its organizational makeup, while obviously important, is also variable. Many writers on the subject of private security have an ideological belief, as Machiavelli did, that mercenary armies are inferior to national ones. But any objective reading of history suggests that the truth of such a prejudice is highly dependent on context. Contracting out national defense was essential to the early modern military revolution in Europe.
Second, institutions and those who seek to influence them may have their own deeply ingrained mythos about what kind of roles the institution should play. But confusing what an organization or would-be external reformer would like to believe about its proper role for what policymakers have regularly called on it to do is not useful. In the civilian economy, art graduates believe that their skills are useful, and they could very well be right. But the market disagrees. When it comes to national security policy, Platonic conceptions of role-sets crucial to long-held institutional culture matter only as much as they can be justified to those who hold the purse strings.
Left to its own devices, the Air Force is unlikely to emphasize close air support (CAS) missions. The Marine Corps’ MAGTF structure is evaluated on the basis of whether it serves the perceived needs of the National Command Authority, not whether the essence of Marine-ness can only be aesthetically satisfied by the MAGTF. Certainly there are good reasons for the Air Force to not emphasize CAS and for the Marines to keep a MAGTF structure. But those reasons do not derive from the idea that such capabilities (or the lack theorof) are crucial to the Marine or Air Force identity. Even if they did, it would be immaterial to what a policy process holds the organizations should do.
Much analysis on covert action and PMCs, like establishment conceptions of the drug war, focuses almost entirely on the supply side of the equation. The demand side reveals a set of uncomfortable truths. One of them is that reformers' ideas that the core function of an intelligence agency should be to supply intelligence does not reflect the preferences of a substantial range of policymakers throughout history. Like Machiavelli’s opinions about mercenary armies, the idea that the ideal function of an intelligence service is to collect intelligence is an political opinion rather than an empirically derived historical regularity. Most intelligence agencies do far more than collect intelligence, and the CIA is no exception to the rule.
But where does the demand come from? For better or worse, American policymakers have a consistent need to control the political composition of foreign societies, eliminate sub-state movements, and coerce in situations of short of general war. One can view it from an idealistic lens of spreading the democratic peace and/or combating violent extremism. Critics of American foreign policy take a different tack: imperialism. How such activities are ideologically justified or condemned is secondary to the empirical fact that they are consistent enough to reflect a recurring policymaker preference for institutions and entrepreneurs capable of providing them.
The United States has a governmental system that enables covert action, wars of choice, and discrete military interventions. Whether you believe that internationalism abroad and the coercive force it entails is right or wrong, it is a perennial aspect of American policy. Even in so-called “isolationist” epochs policymakers have consistently demonstrated a preference for flexible institutions that can deliver coercive intervention on a dime. Given the presence of such preferences and the allocatable material and symbolic capital potentially available to those who satisfy them it is highly likely that such demands will be met.
Supply-side, as opposed to demand-side analysis, has the pernicious effect of quibbling about the visible outward manifestation of a preference while rendering the process that produced it invisible. In the American governmental system, the executive has wide latitude over foreign policy and national security. And when a partisan consensus exists over an issue, as it currently does over American offensive counterterrorism and covert action efforts, demand-side will likely have more of a long-term impact on the nature of institutions than supply-side tinkering.
Supply-side tinkering to curb demand-based preferences can also sometimes have severe unintended consequences. As Dan has noted, the historical purpose of the draft was not to prevent war but to enable it by giving states a readily available pool of military manpower. Certainly the presence of draftees in Vietnam made for greater social divisions and antiwar activism. But Vietnam-era national security policies were themselves the unintended consequence of efforts to avoid a Korea-style continental deployment through light "advise and assist" missions. When decisionmakers (and the public), motivated by sunk costs, decided to commit general purpose forces they were not deterred by the draft. Without the draft, large-scale involvement in Vietnam simply would not have been possible to begin with. Politics, not technical setup, explains the Vietnam War.
Institutions can obviously resist and even shape policymaker demand themselves. But this resistance, like the military's Clinton-era resistance to gays in the military, largely works because other political actors' preferences make the cost of implementing an given policy undesirably high. The Clinton admistration could have devoted substantial political capital, but chose Don't Ask Don't Tell instead of clashing with institutional and likely bipartisan political resistance. When policymakers are cohesive in their demands, institutions find it difficult to resist. Civilian policymakers thwarted military reformers seeking a European-style general staff. It might have done a great deal to actually improve the organizational efficiency of defense planning. But policymakers were simply unwilling to surrender control to such a baldly Germanic defense planning apparatus. Likewise, politicization of intelligence can occur when administrations are determined to see what they want to see. They can set up their own policy shops when the main organization is resistant, like the Bush administration did with the Office of Special Plans during the runup to the Iraq war.
Of course, there is a strong benefit to a “politicized” natural security system that is worth its cost. The practice of political appointees with short terms prevents the rise of a “deep state” seen in other countries. The President does not have to worry about a rogue Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) or Secretary of Defense with substantial autonomy to make far-reaching decisions with potentially catastrophic consequences. The Japanese Imperial Army, on the other hand, dragged civilian policymakers into World War II and the Pakistani state today suffers from an inability to reign in the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency. But life is full of tradeoffs, and in this case the dominant consequence has to do with the shaping power of executive demand. A DCI can't resist the President's demands for covert action, but he also can't exercise an ISI-like hold on covert wars without cabinet oversight.
Somewhere in between is the sweet spot--the right mix of institutional latitude and oversight by the executive branch and the legislature. This is the holy grail of intelligence design and it remains an ideal. But from an institutional design perspective, it makes sense to build capabilities and organization around what the policy customer will likely demand, not what the outside critic believes they should demand. In The Wire, Stringer Bell rebukes his cronies running a front business for not understanding basic microeconomics:
You’re not gonna bring that corner b***t up in here, you hear me? You know, what we got here? We got is an elastic product. You know what that means? That means, when people can go elsewhere and get their printing and copying done, they gonna do it. You acting like we got an inelastic product and we don’t.
Now, the United States government is obviously highly different in form, function, and rationale from a Baltimore drug crew. But national power roles and functions are also more elastic than many would believe. In my Benghazi post, I noted that when foreign governments fail to protect American diplomats, the USG turns to men with black polos with billable hours. Domestically, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all jockey for a piece of Air-Sea Battle even if the objective characteristics of the mission set suggest a dominant role for seapower. Policymaker perception and the pot of available resources matter more in practice than whether a given mission set properly belongs to a certain institution.
With the knowledge of a market for covert action, intelligence reformers looking to improve the CIA should not confuse what they want the CIA to be (an intelligence-gathering organization with a circumscribed paramilitary action function) with what policymakers currently want (offensive counterterrorism and covert action). David Petraeus didn’t further militarize the CIA because he had a burning desire to make the Agency run like his HQ in Afghanistan. He did so because important policy entrepreneurs in the White House—like countless administrations before them---saw a need for a highly lethal kinetic fusion of intel and military operators. If that need goes away, the Agency will find it harder to justify its wide-ranging unmanned air fleet. But history suggests that even if preferences shift, they will likely re-emerge in a different form.
The dominant question should be: how do we—with knowledge of recurring trends of paramilitary and covert action—minimize the negative externalities from these activities? Among other constructive suggestions, Micah Zenko has sensibly suggested paring back signature strikes, as the best tools of violence in low-intensity wars are selective in nature. John Brennan himself, as Joshua Foust has noted on Twitter, has sought to create a better institutional framework for CIA paramilitary action. In the absence of a sudden and drastic shift in what seem to be recurring patterns of policymaker demand (which is not inherently impossible), customer-informed institutional design is likely the best way to deal with the substantial institutional challenges that the countrterror war poses for the CIA and the intelligence community.
Intelligence reform is once again in the air, and this time the bogeyman is the "militarization" of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As Mark Safranski notes, there is something deeply bizarre about the idea that an organization created from the bones of a paramilitary covert action force (the Office of Strategic Services) and frequently involved in joint military ventures with special operations forces (like the Vietnam-era Phoenix Project) should be blamed for engaging in large-scale collaborative military ventures. The frequency with which observers call for the Agency to reject militarization and pursue the supposedly more pure activities of intelligence collection and analysis suggest a lack of historical knowledge of the CIA's paramilitary past.
The CIA was built to perform both covert action and intelligence collection. Aside from a brief period in the 1990s, the Agency has engaged in both. Creating and managing paramilitary armies, running off-the-books air forces and engaging in political action and influence campaigns has been the Agency's bread and butter from Southeast Asia to Latin America and plenty of places in between. The military and other elements of the interagency has been a natural partner for the CIA, particularly in waging sustained and violent campaigns against sub-state actors. This is not to deny the importance of Sherman Kent and the Agency's strategic intelligence mission. But focusing on Kent alone makes us forget that for every Kent there was also a James Jesus Angleton or a Kermit Roosvelt. And for every Angleton and Roosevelt there was also a MACV-SOG operator or a deniable pilot bombing a Third World battlefield in the Cold War.
It was precisely the lack of good paramilitary options during the 1990s that spawned policymaker demand for unmanned aerial vehicle strikes and greater interagency fusion between the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Note too that for better or worse, the Agency and its military counterparts have also returned to form in Central Asia and Africa with local paramilitary proxy forces and secret (non-UAV) air forces in geopolitical hot spots. Merely laying out the continuum of military/intelligence fusion in past and present eras of covert activity isn't enough. What is needed is a framework for understanding why the Agency and the military remain so intricately tied together, and why paramilitary missions are likely to continue in some form no matter what is said about the benefits of rejecting targeting and returning to intelligence collection.
This framework is absent from 90% of conversations about military and intelligence fusion, and the debate needs better perspective. Let's start with the purpose of national power. There are many sides of power, defined at a minimum as the ability to shape the ability of actors to determine their circumstances and fate. Some aspects of power are inherently compulsory in nature, meaning they hinge on the capability to force someone (an individual) or something (an social entity) to do what you want. Others have to do with institutional heft or producing a ideology capable of mobilization.
However, the intermediary step between the capability, structure, or discourse in question and the resulting outcome is often some form of control. In counterinsurgency campaigns, it is difficult to build states without the ability to prevent the enemy from interfering. Creating such control requires violence when the violent objector to the policy objective remains on the field. More broadly, states have developed elaborate means of creating control over domestic and international social environments. As Erin Simpson reminds us, even architecture can help bolster state control over a restive polity through design that facilitates tactical advantage and movement by local security forces.
One means of control is information. Counterinsurgency theorists have often emphasized the importance of cartography, demographic information, relational data, and superior means of information processing because greater understanding an operational environment lowers the costs of control. The anarchist social scientist James C. Scott alleged (with a fair degree of infamy) that certain hill tribes in Asia resisted developing written languages in order to avoid incorporation into centralized polities. Counterintelligence and deception operations deny and misdirect adversaries in search of information. The phrase "information is power" is banal but there is some use for it.
Intelligence analysis takes information and data and transforms it into actionable products for policymakers. Unsurprisingly, intelligence has always been tied to control, domestically or internationally. Strategic indicators and warning (I&W) helps deny control to a foreign enemy by providing advance warning of attack. The role of domestic intelligence in maintaining domestic political control is obvious. Intelligence does not guarantee control but it is certanly part of the requirements for generating control in a social environment.
Control can also be gained through organized social action, which can directly deny, disarm, destroy, or otherwise thwart an objector to state policy. Organized violence is a form of social action, but so can be a political mobilization, construction of an alternative institution, or calculated erosion of a target social structure or entity. Many covert operations use combinations of violence, hidden influence, erosion, and mobilization to achieve control. There's a long CIA history of militarizing ethno-religious groups that are on the bottom of a given country's power structure or arming insurgents and providing them with military support.
So what does all of this have to do with intelligence? Plenty. Policymakers did not develop intelligence agencies to do "intelligence," a term that only represents a fraction of what many intelligence organizations across the world do. Let's not confuse a given institutional design, which can shift radically over time, with core purpose. Policymakers have always wanted intelligence agencies, intelligence entrepreneurs, or specialized ad hoc groupings to improve their ability to generate control in the following ways: collection of information, manipulation, and direct coercive action, often in concert with other agencies. Special operations historian Simon Anglim lays out how covert operations fit in:
There are grey areas in which states clash short of open warfare when use of subversion, sabotage and fighting by local proxies may be a preferred strategic option to overt commitment of regular forces; moreover, given that much non-violent covert activity aims at undermining the target state’s military preparedness and will to fight, and steering its strategic decision-making processes, there are important strategic dimensions here, also. A covert operation, therefore, is a single mission aimed at creating a particular situation in another country with concealed means and intent. Non-violent covert operations create disaffection among the target state’s population, weakening its will to affect the world around it, or steer surreptitiously its decision-making via placing agents in key positions. Violent covert operations include sabotage, assassination, and paramilitary support of armed insurgency against the opposing power.
Many covert activities happen during wartime and in the context of larger military campaigns. During the Pancho Villa expedition Pershing attempted to use secret agents to poison Pancho Villa outright. The infamous Force Research Unit (FRU) used agents of intelligence to further British strategy in the struggle against the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The CIA carried out extensive covert operations of a paramilitary nature in the Korean War and did so in cooperation with special operations soldiers as part of MACV-SOG in the Vietnam war. And there was the OSS in WWII, the proliferation of specialized British military intelligence and special operations groups, and the operation of private air forces before US entry into the war.
Policymakers want a variety of means to realize control. When regular military means are too blunt a tool and diplomacy too soft, they will clamor for what they (rightly or wrongly) consider to be a subtle knife. In Ghost Wars, Steve Coll noted that every time the Pentagon could not give the President actionable options for raids in pre-9/11 Afghanistan without rendering the plans politically useless. In the eleven years since 9/11, successive Presidents have clearly rejected such a calculus and demanded that the CIA and the Pentagon work together to produce covert options for pursuing enemies of the state. In particular, the line between the CIA has always been fairly porous. As SOF scholar Nick Prime often noted on Twitter, military and CIA often combine to realize common missions, exchange personnel, and closely collaborate.
Finally, like any good bureaucratic actor the CIA jockeys to serve a pressing need. The most pressing need today, as perceived by policymakers, is the war effort. Militarization goes beyond just adapting to the demands of policymakers, as a former classmate pointed out to me. If the President did not want a military-focused CIA, would he have appointed a former general to head it? And David Petraeus, unlike fellow General Michael Hayden, was not dual-hatted.
If the CIA decides to go "back to intelligence," policymakers will rightly conclude that the Agency is only doing half of its job. It seems paradoxical to bemoan the militarization of intelligence when the likely outcome of muzzling the CIA's paramilitary organs will be greater Pentagon conduct of covert affairs. As Robert Caruso once explained, it is not clear that this structure will result in greater transparency. DoD has many more ways than the Agency to frustrate such inquiries. A CIA weak on paramilitary-focused covert action will guarantee a more militarized intelligence structure than the Intelligence Community we have today.
Yet there is some merit to criticism of the CIA's post-9/11 focus. The emphasis on the targeting cycle has come at the expense of strategic intelligence. If intelligence agencies cannot deliver deliver credible assessments of intelligence useful to the formation of strategy, they are also doing half their jobs. The strategic effect derived from post-9/11 covert action has also been mixed. Data problems make it hard to assess the impact of the air war in Pakistan, and in Yemen the covert campaign has been arguably counterproductive. There are reasonable concerns about the long-term impact of the CIA losing its significant institutional advantages in complex counterintelligence, non-targeting covert operations, and intelligence collection.
But blaming paramilitary covert operations alone ignores the fact that covert operations in war serve strategy. And when policy and strategy have an overly military character, it is not surprising that myopia will set in as intelligence efforts are shifted to fit operational demands. Covert operations in Vietnam and its neighbors were supposed to support an overarching war effort that in and of itself was horribly flawed. In Yemen the United States is the counterinsurgency force for the Yemeni government, and the failures of targeted killings must be considered within the context of Washington's poor conduct of the overall campaign.
The focus on the targeting cycle owes itself to policymaker demand. Listening to some critiques of CIA/JSOC operations for militarization of intelligence, one would never realize that the nation has been at war for eleven years. If the CIA did not radically shift to support operational military demands it would have likely endured the same tongue-lashing Robert Gates gave the Air Force for not supporting the COIN mission. Nearly every element of the United States government was told to support the wars, and the CIA was no exception to the general rule. During times of war or situations in which the chance of war is high, policymakers tend to want the military and the CIA to cooperate to advance their strategic aims or otherwise help realize policy. if you want a less militarized IC, you ought to demand a policies less reliant on violent and/or coercive means. And in particular, policies that demand an expansive political-military effort across a large portion of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Finally, critics engrossed in the ethical quandries of direct action should not ignore the significant moral compromises inherent in day-to-day intelligence collection (particularly human intelligence operations). There is a reason why Americans have always been traditionally uncomfortable with intelligence agencies, and we have never quite given up the basic sentiment that "gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail." Intelligence collection has often threatened civil liberties, and convincing vulnerable informants to betray their country, group, or tribe is fraught with ethical perils. Today, the ethical challenge of human intelligence operations are often forgotten. But they were an omnipresent problem during the Cold War, and one recognized in even fictional literature on intelligence like John LeCarre's novels.
So what to be done? First, any process of intelligence reform has to incorporate what policymakers fundamentally desire out of organizations like the CIA. In an ever more open-ended struggle against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, this will be covert action in cooperation with the military. The difficult challenge lies in resolving the Title 10/50 conflict and developing greater transparency while still preserving institutional relationships and tactics, techniques, and procedures built up during the post-9/11 wars. The CIA will also have to balance such demands with core intelligence collection and assessment. The frustrating part about this is that the CIA's ability to pursue better intelligence collection and analysis is inherently constrained by policymaker demand. Another Afghanistan and we will be likely to see much more attention and resources focused on targeting. The fictional CIA honcho in Zero Dark Thirty yells "give me targets!" because he likely has someone above the Agency also breathing down his neck.
Most importantly, the United States must also understand that covert operations are also governed by policy and strategy as well. As Micah Zenko's research shows, "discrete military operations" are effective in the context of an overarching strategy. And it goes without saying that covert operations cannot rescue a bad policy. Unfortunately, much of the history of covert operations in America is often precisely that--failed attempts to rescue bad policies with spooks and door-kickers. Covert operations have their limits and it would behoove us to spend more time trying to understand their inherent constraints. But setting up a false binary between a paramilitary and intelligence CIA won't help us do that.