December 9, 2016 | The Weekly Standard

The CIA, Post-Obama

When the new casts out the old, an incoming administration has the opportunity to review its predecessor’s approach to the Central Intelligence Agency. When this is done, the focus is usually on the ethics of Langley and politically disturbing covert action. The Obama administration was prototypical in this regard: In conjunction with Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the president went after the most controversial parts of his predecessor's war on al Qaeda. He accused George W. Bush of condoning torture and the CIA of devising the means required. The Senate committee staff released a scathing review of Langley's post-9/11 detention and enhanced interrogation program (while largely ignoring the question of whether senior Democrats in Congress had known of and approved the unconventional methods).

Democrats also went after the Bush administration's use of rendition. Its application under Bill Clinton, who started transferring real or suspected Islamic terrorists into harsh allied hands, and Barack Obama received much less attention. News stories about the unpleasant practice under Democrats were inevitably thin, revealing the political preferences of the leakers. Some Democratic officials even suggested that the CIA under Clinton and Obama had exercised a virtuous version of rendition: Agency operatives overseas ensured that air-lifted radicals weren't abused in countries where street thieves, let alone jihadists, are routinely beaten.

Obama and like-minded Democrats wanted to shame the CIA publicly, to ensure its personnel would never again use severe methods. They will undoubtedly prove successful—unless another Islamic terrorist attack inside the United States results in the slaughter of thousands. If this were to occur, anger, patriotism, and a bipartisan desire to protect one's own could well see CIA officers again on the cutting edge, doing things that most of Washington today would prefer take place, with deniability, out of sight in Egypt or Jordan.


Since the 1970s, case officers, who collect human intelligence and run covert action, have generally viewed Republicans as more fun, Democrats as more tormenting. Analysts tend to be more politically conventional: A big majority of the personnel in the Directorate of Intelligence is probably Democratic. But neither the open nor closed side of the house appreciates outsiders questioning the institution's basic competence in intelligence collection and analysis. Democrats and Republicans have rarely done so, though Republicans have occasionally been meaner in their queries about fundamentals since they aren't as morally disturbed and distracted by the CIA's presidentially mandated sojourns into controversial covert actions. It's hard to think of Democratic equivalents to Republican intel staffers like Angelo Codevilla, a serious intellectual whose 1992 book Informing Statecraft is a devastating critique of the CIA's inadequacies, and Taylor Lawrence, a Senate staff director in the late 1990s with a Ph.D. from Stanford who questioned the bang-versus-buck performance of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

The bipartisan aversion to questioning the CIA's espionage and analytical performance has held the high ground in Congress and the White House since 9/11. Obama was no different from Bush. So far as I can tell, based on conversations with several former and active-duty CIA officials, no one has systematically red-teamed the Directorate of Operations about its work against America's most important intelligence targets since 9/11. Does the clandestine serv-ice achieve an acceptable minimum in its efforts opposing our primary foes?

In the past, this question was sometimes easy to answer. When Langley had a mole in the Soviet avionics industry who supplied the United States with the blueprints on everything Moscow could put into the air, obviously the CIA was worth its budget even if the agency's only real achievement was securely running this asset behind enemy lines.

All the big issues surrounding the CIA—about the basic competencies of how it does its work operationally and analytically—are difficult for outsiders to assess, of course, even the more intrepid in the congressional intelligence committees and the executive branch. One operational success—the right “walk-in” or volunteer in just the right place—can paper over the doubts, which, in any case, tend to evanesce quickly behind the protective barrier of classified information. Were the CIA's routine Cold War operations, for the most part, so much busy work? Has the vast majority of Langley's classified analytical products been less insightful than the unclassified work of Washington's better think tanks? It didn't really matter if the agency could provide, now and then, eye-popping information against our number-one threat.

Counterterrorism has replaced the Soviet Union as Langley's fail-safe raison d'être. This is in so many ways an easier target for the operations directorate since the most important work is done through liaison channels. Information supplied by others, not information that Langley obtains by itself through “unilateral” human-intelligence operations, is where its bread is now buttered. CIA-driven drones also help to obscure where Langley collects human-intelligence well and where it's just lethal. Collecting intelligence for a drone strike, which can be data- and intercept-driven, is an entirely different undertaking from recruiting and running agents inside the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

How good the CIA is against the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, which is certainly the agency's oldest and consistently most threatening and powerful target in the Middle East, has never drawn sustained attention. Iran-contra percolated a bit of outsider curiosity, but again, that attention focused on what congressionally unsanctioned covert action the agency—specifically the director of central intelligence William Casey and his selected officers—was taking. Whether Casey's minions were actually gathering good intelligence inside Iran and whether their analysis about “moderates” within the regime was correct were never particularly compelling issues for angry outsiders looking in.

But the agency's Iran competence ought to gain more attention now that the clerical regime is driving most of the big issues of the Middle East, which President Trump will no more escape than his anti-interventionist predecessor did: Iran's ongoing nuclear and ballistic-missile programs; sectarian war, which was the major catalyst in the rise of the Islamic State; the accelerating clash between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic; the god-awful slaughter in Syria, which is being run on the ground by the clerical regime's Revolutionary Guards; and the growth of Shiite expeditionary militias, which the Revolutionary Guards and their first-born foreign children, the Lebanese Hezbollah, are creating and training. It's not just Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin who provoke and control Europe's refugee waves coming from Syria and Iraq; the clerical regime and its foot-soldiers are equally disruptive.

I have discussed before in these pages (see “How Will We Know? The coming Iran intelligence failure,” July 27, 2015) how weak the CIA intelligence-collecting network likely is inside Iran, especially against the clerical regime's nuclear program. What has transpired since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was concluded last summer has done little to assuage the concern that Washington—chiefly the CIA—lacks the capacity to properly detect Iranian nuclear research that doesn't take place inside the facilities monitored by the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency. The “self-inspection” of the Parchin Revolutionary Guard base, where the IAEA and the American intelligence community know the clerical regime once worked on nuclear weaponization, really should have made serious people in Washington—especially Director Brennan—laugh. The amusement appeared to be strictly partisan: Serious foreign-policy Democrats largely remained silent, hanging with party orthodoxy to cast no doubt on President Obama's nuclear diplomacy.

The weaknesses of the nuclear deal will only become more manifest with time, as we count down the agreement's sunset clauses. The Iranian ballistic-missile program, which is unconstrained by the JCPOA and unintimidated by U.N. Security Council sanctions, continues to advance as European money gradually returns to Iran and the Islamic Republic's aggressive, hegemonic behavior in Syria and Iraq moves forward. If President-elect Trump decides to keep the accord, he may want to review the intelligence procedures that the Obama administration put into place to monitor Iranian activity outside the JCPOA.

Are there even any such procedures? Pompeo, who has been a trenchant critic of the nuclear agreement, also might want to know how extensive is the CIA's reporting network inside the Islamic Republic. If President Trump is determined to be more demanding than Obama on the nuclear question, if he intends to stop the development of Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles and counter the mullahs' nefarious nonnuclear activity, then it's obvious that the United States would benefit from having a CIA capable of running a wide variety of assets into the Islamic Republic and Iranian-held and Iranian-friendly territory in the Middle East. A new director free from the categorical imperative to preserve the nuclear deal would want to know if Langley actually has valuable agents inside the country—within the clergy, the Revolutionary Guards, the internal-security Basij forces, the military, the business community, the oil industry, and the nuclear program. He might want to look at CIA intelligence reports on the Islamic Republic over the last year and tie them back to their sources. This is detailed work, but through such details comes illumination. Not just on Iran but about how the entire agency really works. What is true about unilateral CIA operations against the Iranian target—its successes and failures—is likely true of unilateral CIA operations against al Qaeda. Mutatis mutandis, it is also probably true for CIA operations against Russian and Chinese targets.

Director Pompeo may discover the emperor wears no clothes or at least is clothed poorly. He will presumably learn that Brennan's boast that American intelligence is capable of detecting Iranian nuclear malfeasance isn't bankable and that this situation will become much worse as Iranian financial resources grow, along with the mullahs' willingness to clandestinely challenge Western hubris—the audacity of Americans and Europeans to even think they have the right to check the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions. Iranian victories in Syria and Iraq will unquestionably fuel the clerical regime's pride, which will likely translate into greater Iranian willingness to challenge the JCPOA and Trump, assuming the president-elect intends to maintain the agreement.

And with the Islamic Republic, the unexpected does seem to happen at least once a decade: As in 2009, popular anger again might ignite, sending millions onto the streets in open protest against tyranny. The CIA director of a new president less concerned about overcoming “misunderstandings” between the United States and Iran, less animated by the guilt of Washington's history with the shah, and less anxious about the exercise of American power might want to be prepared. Although it's hard now to imagine President Trump supporting democratic dissidents in Iran (or elsewhere), strange things sometimes happen in foreign policy. The Middle East is a brutal realm of irony.

In any case, the CIA would certainly benefit from having a director who spends time thinking about the nuts and bolts of American intelligence collection and analysis against hard targets. A director who focuses laser-like on just a few problems might push the entire organization globally to do better. Congressman Pompeo already knows that Iran is one of America's most determined foes. Unlike so many in Washington, he doesn't need to be tutored on the fundamentals. Pompeo may also already know that President Trump's handling of the Islamic Republic is bound to tell us how the president will handle the rest of the world.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.