Time for a Divorce
by Haviland Smith
A retired CIA station chief examines they marriage between human intelligence collection and covert action that came about in the early years of the Cold War and its detrimental effects on the Agency’s ability to produce useful and timely intelligence on U.S. enemies. If we cannot eliminate covert action entirely, he concludes, it should at least be separated from the intelligence collection function. – Ed.
America has lived with its “Intelligence Community” – the CIA, NSA, DIA and all the other lesser intelligence organizations – for decades. Depending on your viewpoint, they have been somewhere between successful and unsuccessful in providing our government both with the organizational structure and with the intelligence needed to protect our country and advance its international interests.
Whatever your take, there is one immutable involved in intelligence work: It is an aggressive, risk-taking business that withers when bureaucratic inertia and caution settle in.
The issue today is whether the post-9/11 reorganization of the intelligence community has made sense or has improved the ability of the organizations within it to carry out their jobs. The omission of the FBI, our national law enforcement organization, in the “intelligence community” list does not obviate the need for the creation of a functioning internal intelligence organization to deal with domestic issues. We still need such a service – one without the power of arrest.
At its highest level, it is the purpose of any intelligence organization to produce finished intelligence analyses of information on the capabilities and intentions of their country’s enemies. Much of the raw intelligence behind such analyses is collected through highly technical means and thus, in America, is the province of the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office. Nevertheless, even acknowledging that technical operations can see and hear, they are still not able to read peoples’ minds, and those minds often hold the key to intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of our enemies.
A new weapons system is vulnerable to technical collection when it is first test fired. However, to deal effectively with it we need to know of its development years before that firing. Similarly, intentions, if not ascertained well in advance, are only observable when the planes hit the Twin Towers and Pentagon, missiles are unleashed, or enemy troops begin to mass for an attack.
Like technical collection, it is also the function of human intelligence (HUMINT) operations to produce intelligence on the capabilities, specifically including military research and development, and the intentions of our enemies. The difference is that HUMINT operations seek to find human beings with access to critical information who will talk frankly with us. Where intentions and critical military research and development activities are not normally or broadly vulnerable to technical collection operations, they often can be sniffed out through the recruitment of well-placed spies.
The Central Intelligence Agency was conceived in 1947 as the lead intelligence organization in the U.S. government. Its chief was not simply the chief of CIA, he was given the title of Director of Central Intelligence, and with that august title, the responsibility to coordinate and direct the overall intelligence operations of the United States government.
For a variety of both good and not so good reasons, no DCI has ever really carried out that responsibility. In the aftermath of the purported intelligence failures of 9/11, a new overall leader, the Director of National Intelligence, was created. That left the CIA as simply one of many equals in the intelligence community.
During the Cold War, the CIA had broad responsibilities and conducted all manner of activities in the fields of intelligence analysis and collection.
The primary analytical arm of the CIA, known as the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), began its life after the Second World War and its Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the State Department. It was then moved into the new CIA in the late l940s. Even then, some of INR’s employees remained at State. The State Department’s analytical function remained in INR and has continued to this day to provide analytical insights in support of foreign policy.
In addition to the DI, there is the Directorate of Science and Technology. According to the CIA website, “The DS&T creates, adapts, develops, and operates technical collection systems and applies enabling technologies to the collection, processing, and analysis of information.”
The other major analytical organ in the U.S. government is the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. It provides intelligence analysis support to Department of Defense activities and requirements.
National Clandestine Service
The other operational CIA collection component is the National Clandestine Service (NCS), which, according to the CIA, “operates as the clandestine arm of the CIA and serves as the national authority for the coordination, deconfliction, and evaluation of clandestine human intelligence operations across the Intelligence Community. The NCS supports our country’s security and foreign policy interests by conducting clandestine activities to collect information that is not obtainable through other means. The NCS also conducts counterintelligence and special activities as authorized by the President.”
In the early days of the CIA, there were two types of activities that fell under the Clandestine Service. The first was HUMINT (human intelligence), made up of positive intelligence, counterintelligence, and counterespionage, and the second was CA (covert action), consisting of propaganda and political action operations, which, at their most potent, involved regime change.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, CA and HUMINT operations were literally housed in separate CIA stations in the same foreign cities. As the Cold War progressed into the 1950s, this arrangement was found to be less than attractive by an Eisenhower administration that was vitally interested in CA operations being used to counter the Soviet threat around the world. For that reason, the two activities were combined under the same station roofs abroad, and CA and HUMINT were forced to coexist.
The results of this were many, but two were of major importance. First, CA operations began to compete with HUMINT operations for the only resources the CIA had – money and manpower.
In this context, CA broke down into two major sub-forms: propaganda and political action (mainly regime change) operations. Propaganda was far and away the more prevalent and consisted, inter alia, of support of radio stations, the placement of newspaper articles favorable to the United States or unfavorable to the USSR, or the publication of materials to be sent in to the socialist world.
These propaganda operations were viewed as important within the CIA and the U.S. government, and it was perfectly feasible for any given CIA officer to make a very successful career out of them without getting involved in far more difficult and potentially less successful HUMINT operations, particularly those against “hard targets” like the USSR, China, and the lesser socialist countries.
The involvement of CIA officers in political action operations designed to overthrow any given government was far less likely. Despite reports to the contrary, in relative terms, there simply were not that many such operations, nor did they involve many of our officers.
The result of this phenomenon was that many officers profitably spent their careers in CA propaganda operations without dipping their toes into the far more critical waters of our hard target operations.
The second, far more significant result of the uneasy marriage between HUMINT and CA operations was both practically and psychologically negative.
Espionage that is confined to the collection of significant intelligence through HUMINT operations is a politically low-risk business. When actually exposed, such operations usually result, at worst, in the expulsion of our officer, a testy response from the target country, and icy relations for a usually manageable period of time.
When a political action operation goes wrong or gets exposed, particularly if it involves regime change, the results can have a virtually endless negative impact. Latin America still chafes under the conviction that the United States attempted regime change in seven different countries in the 10 years between 1954 and 1964. Worse yet is the fact that the fallout of the overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran in 1953 remains a major bone of contention over 55 years later!
It is fairly safe to say that our CA propaganda operations, despite what they cost us in terms of resources, were little more than a pinprick to the Soviets. Our political action operations, particularly those designed to change regimes, are a bit more difficult to evaluate in terms of their net worth to the U.S. government. So many such “operations” have been laid at our doorstep that it is really impossible for an outsider to put together an accurate list. Nevertheless, some that went bad have had a profoundly negative effect on us.
That negative effect is not only to be measured in international political terms, but has to be looked at in terms of the effect that it had on our own human intelligence collection operations. The negative publicity that the CIA has gotten over the years as a result of its covert action operations, both real and imputed, has had a direct inhibiting effect on its clandestine intelligence collection operations.
The CIA may well have been at its most prolific in terms of its production of intelligence on our enemies’ capabilities and intentions during the 1960s and 1970s. We had learned a great deal about the conduct of Cold War clandestine collection operations during the 1950s and early 1960s, and that fact, combined with a loosening of Soviet control over its citizens, presented us with a very favorable operational environment which we were increasingly able to exploit.
We were able to do that because CIA management was still very much in the hands of the old OSS members who had migrated to the Agency. Whatever negativity they brought to the Agency in terms of their positive focus on covert action operations, they were always aggressive. The CIA was a risk-taking organization, and if your goal is successful espionage, that is one of the prerequisites.
Church Committee Impact
All of that began to change with the publication of the Church Committee findings in 1976. The CIA took the fall for all the Political action (regime change) operations undertaken against foreign leaders, the implication having been made that the CIA, the “rogue elephant,” planned these operations entirely on its own. No mention was made of the fact that all of them were planned and undertaken at the direction of sitting presidents.
The negative results on CIA’s intelligence collection operations were both physical and psychological. CIA officers felt unjustly accused and inappropriately undefended. They had done what they were asked to do and had broken no laws in doing so.
Worse than that, there was an almost immediate effect on our operations. HUMINT collection activities that had been approved and successfully carried out in the past were suddenly put on hold. Management had become wildly risk-averse. They were gun-shy because of realities in their own country.
Intelligence organizations, specifically those operating on behalf of democracies, are incredibly susceptible to the normal organizational aging processes. While a successful commercial organization tends to reinvent itself when under duress, if only to reestablish profitability, intelligence organizations tend to go to ground when they are under intense scrutiny. It is probably an unavoidable fact that as they age and their successes and failures become increasingly well known, intelligence organizations get more and more cautious and conservative.
America should probably give up its political action operations. It is quite likely that a dispassionate evaluation of all those operations over the past 60 years would conclude that they caused us far more difficulty and embarrassment than they were worth. Nevertheless, It seems unlikely, given the world in which we now live, that any U.S. president would voluntarily give up that part of his legal authorities that lets him commission “special activities as authorized by the President” – an open-ended license to carry out covert action operations, most emphatically including regime change.
Covert action operations, like those attributed to the CIA particularly during the paranoid era of the early Cold War, have consistently been uncovered and publicized to the detriment of CIA’s intelligence collection operations. On the other hand, clandestine intelligence collection operations, when exposed, cause momentary discomfort in the area where they were being conducted, but they rarely result in lasting negative consequences for the CIA or the United States, and they rarely have a lasting negative effect on the continuation of such collection operations.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.