Reforming The CIA

For some perspective on the confirmation hearings today for CIA director nominee Leon Panetta, I spoke to Ishmael Jones, a long-serving former CIA case officer who served in senior operational roles in a variety of foreign countries. The author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, Jones's past work prevents him from revealing his true identity.

Do you think your colleagues in the clandestine service will support Panetta?  Why is it assumed that they wanted "one of their own" in the job?

The CIA's patriotic and talented rank and file employees are hungry for leadership and are eager to support President Obama's choice of Leon Panetta as CIA director.  The CIA's top bureaucrats, on the other hand, opposed Panetta's appointment because they thought the job should have gone to one of them. We should be skeptical of the notions they've promoted:  that they are popular with employees and that maintaining the status quo is somehow good for morale. The CIA's top bureaucrats are political infighters and press manipulators, not intelligence professionals.

The single most important job for the intelligence community over the next several years is to protect the country from nuclear terrorism. Given its current structure, is that a reasonable expectation?

Our intelligence system is broken and we lack good quality human sources on the major threats to Americans. Leon Panetta can take steps to improve our human source capabilities if he can overcome the resistance of the CIA's entrenched management. He must take action because if a major attack upon Americans or our allies occurs, an attack which could have been prevented through intelligence reform, then President Obama's chances of a successful presidency will be diminished.  

Do our biggest nuclear threats come from states like Iran, or diffuse terrorist networks?

Terrorist networks are a greater threat because terrorists seek nuclear weapons in order to use them. Iran, on the other hand, is like an unpopular teenager who brings a weapon to school under the mistaken belief that it will earn him respect. Maybe Iran will attack others with nuclear weapons, or maybe Iran will just brandish the weapons in order to swagger, boast, and bargain.

If you could wave the magic wand and make One Big Change to the CIA in order to fulfill the counterproliferation mission, what would it be?

Enforce current laws and directives.  Get the CIA's clandestine officers out of the United States and move them to assignments in foreign countries, as required by the CIA's charter. Most CIA employees now live and work within the United States. Move more CIA officers outside the diplomatic/embassy system. Congress has directed this and has been providing massive funding for years, but the CIA has not complied. Establish strict accounting and audit procedures for federal funds, as is already required by law.


You are unique in that your past work as a case officer prevents you from writing and speaking under your real identity. That adds a certain mystique, but it leads me to this question: can - and should - the CIA be more open?  Is there too much classification? What reforms would you suggest?

Secrecy is necessary for the protection of identities and operations, but unfortunately it's used to hide bureaucracy and fraud. The CIA lacks accountability - I'm aware of no CIA manager who has ever been replaced or demoted for failure to achieve missions. The President should insist that the CIA bring him the intelligence he needs to make decisions on foreign crises. Leon Panetta should be free, with the full support of Americans and without political interference, to make changes in leadership until he finds the people who are willing to get the job done.

A question about accountability. You've said that there's currently no system in place, aside from a bureaucratic inspector-general process that takes months, for CIA officers and others to report serious crimes committed by supervisors or colleagues.  That's one reason why some national security officials have turned to the press.  What can and should be done?

Any American who witnesses a crime such as fraud or improper use of federal funds has the ability to contact the FBI and expect a response. CIA employees should have that ability as well.  If a single FBI agent were assigned to the CIA with the authority to investigate reports of fraud provided by individual CIA employees, this would set off a rapid chain reaction of good behavior and financial accountability.  When taxpayers' money is handled improperly at the CIA, it doesn't just result in fraud and waste. It also opens gaps in our intelligence programs and national security.


Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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