Makeover of CIA overdue, but does it need more bureaucracy?

CIA Director John Brennan has just done what many of his predecessors at the agency surely dreamed of doing over the past few decades, which is to put the existing organization chart in the shredder and redo it.

Brennan’s makeover order came in a March 6 memo to the workforce titled “Our Agency’s Blueprint for the Future.” It was written in anodyne, business-school language, and it hasn’t received much press coverage. But the message was blunt: The CIA’s current management structure is too loose and archaic for a world that’s on fire.

“What’s broken that needs to be fixed?” Brennan mused in a conversation with reporters last month. “I have a feeling that Kodak executives in the 1990s were asking themselves the same question, and, sure enough, things just passed them by.”

Brennan is basically right. The CIA’s culture is broken. The hero of my most recent novel, “The Director,” muses on his first day on the job that maybe the famous campus in Langley should be blown up and turned into a theme park. He settles for removing the statue of the CIA’s founding father, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, from the lobby.

Parts of Brennan’s plan worry me, though. In trying to create a more responsive organization with better oversight, he may add new layers of bureaucracy. And his plan to merge analysts and operators in 10 “mission centers” makes sense — but it could undermine the independence that encourages analysts to question whether operations in, say, Afghanistan are really working.

There’s a “subtle pressure” for analysts to trim criticism of operators when they’re sitting next to them, explains Michael Morell, a former deputy director and author of a forthcoming memoir titled “The Great War of Our Time.”

CIA employees are said to be nervous. “There’s a lot of wait-and-see going on,” said another former deputy director. A workforce that is notoriously adept at sabotaging change may hope to wait this one out — and pray that when Brennan’s successor arrives in less than two years, he or she will undo the plan.

The reorganization has three basic goals, each of which is endorsed by former directors and deputies I queried. They said they had experimented with similar ideas while in office, but hadn’t taken them as far as Brennan proposes.

His first big move is to create the mission centers that will supplant the existing geographically based divisions. The model is the Counterterrorism Center, which showed that combining different disciplines under one roof produced both better targeted operations and sharper analysis. Brennan has appointed 10 assistant directors who will run these centers, and he hopes to have them operating by October.

The “mother ships” for officers will still be the Directorate of Operations and Directorate of Analysis, respectively. But as Brennan complained last month, those directorates have been too “stovepiped.” That’s putting it mildly. Over the decades, the directorates developed organizational cultures that were turf-conscious and change-resistant.

What worries me is that the mission centers, as a new bureaucracy, will require an additional layer of management. Brennan proposes a stronger secretariat and executive director to monitor day-to-day activities. It sounds reasonable, but a secret bureaucracy tends to grow in the dark like mushrooms. Beware a seventh-floor management team that becomes so top-heavy the building underneath buckles.

Brennan’s second major change is a new “Directorate of Digital Innovation.” This sounds like technobabble, but it’s a good idea. Essentially, it takes the existing Information Operations Center, widely judged to be a success, and puts it on steroids. Every aspect of intelligence, from covert action to recruiting agents to protecting officers’ cover, is now linked to information technology. For security reasons, “employees were asked to check their digital selves at the gate,” explains former CIA Director Michael Hayden. That must change.

Brennan’s final reform involves personnel management. He proposes a new “CIA University” and other improvements. The goal should be to assess and develop talent as effectively as the military does, through its network of schools, training centers and promotion panels.

A final concern about this generally sensible plan: Brennan’s model managers seem to be the assistant secretaries that run bureaus at the State Department, or the combatant commanders who oversee regional forces for the Pentagon. Those structures would be better than what exists at the CIA. But as anyone who has watched Centcom in action can attest, big unified commands can be as territorial as the individual military services ever were.

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