For more than seven years, Mike — a lean, chain-smoking officer at the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Virginia — has managed the agency’s deadly campaign of armed drone strikes. As the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Mike wielded tremendous power in hundreds of decisions over who lived and died in far-off lands, according to a report in The New York Times.
But under a new plan outlined by the Obama administration on Thursday, the Counterterrorism Center over time would cease to be the hub of America’s targeted killing operations in Pakistan, Yemen and other places where presidents might choose to wage war in the future. Already, the CIA’s director, John Brennan, has passed over Mike, an undercover officer whose full name is being withheld, for a promotion to run the agency’s clandestine service.
It is a sign that Brennan is trying to shift the CIA’s focus back toward traditional spying and strategic analysis, but that is not an easy task.
Arguably, no agency has changed more in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks than the CIA, and no agency could be affected more by the new direction of the secret wars laid out by American officials on Thursday.
More than half of the CIA’s work force joined the agency after 2001, and many of those new officers have spent the years since almost exclusively on the work of man-hunting and killing.
Some American officials and outside experts believe it could take years for a spy agency that has evolved into a paramilitary service to rebalance its activities.
“There’s a huge cultural and generational issue at stake here,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official. “A lot of the people hired since 9/11 have done nothing but tactical work for the past 12 years,” he said, “and intellectually it’s very difficult to go from a tactical approach to seeing things more strategically.”
The CIA is not getting out of the killing business anytime soon. Although Obama did not specifically mention the CIA drone program in his speech, he said that the United States would continue to carry out strikes in the “Afghan war theater”— which American officials have long considered to include Pakistan, a country where the CIA has carried out hundreds of drone strikes. Obama indicated that these strikes could go on for more than a year and a half, until the end of 2014, when most American forces are to be out of Afghanistan.
Obama administration officials said this week that some drone operations would shift to the Pentagon, particularly those in Yemen, where the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command is already running a parallel drone program. And, they said, the “preference” for the future is for all drone operations to be run by the Defence Department, rather than the CIA. While CIA officers and analysts will continue to play a role in any drone operations run by the Pentagon, the White House plan is for the Defence Department to assume control over all drone operations in less than two years.
American officials said that one of the biggest challenges facing the CIA is to take a large group of case officers who have spent more than a decade trying to hunt terrorists in war zones and retrain them to spy in countries like Russia, China and other so-called hard targets — difficult environments where governments are hard to penetrate and many C.I.A. operatives are under constant surveillance. Spying on the streets of Moscow might involve less physical danger than working in Karachi, Pakistan, or in Sana, Yemen, but trying to recruit Russian sources and to outwit Russian intelligence officers requires a subtlety that spies have not always practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beyond the drone campaign, the CIA over the past decade built large stations in Kabul and Baghdad, populating them with hundreds of young clandestine officers, many of whom were serving on their first overseas tour. The way CIA officers operate in war zones — hunkered down much of the time behind large concrete walls and driving through cities in armoured vehicles — is often the antithesis of the tradecraft used in noncombat areas, where spies need to blend into the local population.
Brennan, who spent decades in the C.I.A. as an intelligence analyst, also faces a significant challenge in widening the aperture of the CIA’s analytical work — which has also been consumed by the counterterrorism mission since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“A lot of things that pass for analysis right now is really targeting,” said Michael V. Hayden, a former CIA director. “There has to be a shift in emphasis.”
In 2011, as popular revolutions spread through the Arab world, White House officials were critical of CIA analysts for what they saw as a failure to keep up with the rapidly changing dynamics of the revolts. During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Brennan made a veiled reference to this criticism.
“With billions of dollars invested in CIA over the past decade, policymaker expectations of CIA’s ability to anticipate major geopolitical events should be high,” he said in a written response to questions posed by the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Recent events in the Arab world, however, indicate that CIA needs to improve its capabilities and its performance still further.”
Even though Obama made it clear on Thursday that America’s shadow wars would continue, it is obviously the hope of the White House that the CIA’s role on the front lines of those wars will gradually diminish — and that the CIA can adapt as the administration tries to refocus its foreign policy away from Middle East and counterterrorism and toward other parts of the world.