Wednesday, April 25, 2018


A group of former senior intelligence officials recently published a letter supporting Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel as the nominee to be the next CIA director.

Critics of Ms. Haspel have focused most of their questions about her suitability for the position on her past role in the agency’s interrogation programs for captured terrorists after the September 11 attacks.

The debate so far is largely centered on the past and has ignored important questions about whether Ms. Haspel is the right person to bring much-needed reform to the CIA in the aftermath of disastrous reforms put in place under the administration of President Barack Obama.

A key indicator of concerns that should be raised about Ms. Haspel is the endorsement she received from Mr. Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, who has revealed himself a bitter partisan and critic of President Trump.

During his tenure as CIA director, Mr. Brennan worked closely with Ms. Haspel in drafting and launching the CIA’s so-called “modernization” plan.

As someone who spent a career in the shadowy world of intelligence, I can attest this damaging modernization went largely unnoticed by the public and never received the attention it should have from the agency’s congressional overseers and the public. The Brennan reforms will have a long-term impact by severely limiting the CIA’s espionage capabilities — and they should be reversed by the next CIA director.

Under Mr. Brennan and with the support of Ms. Haspel, the modernization plan systematically dismantled and destroyed the CIA’s operations division — the heart of the agency’s critical mission of using people to steal vital secrets around the world.

To avoid critical reaction, the weakening of the CIA’s operations branch was disguised under the modernization program by announcing with great fanfare the creation of a new Directorate of Digital Innovation. The new bureaucratic entity sought to redirect the agency toward using cyber capabilities as a key intelligence-gathering tool.

Historically, the operations division was staffed by an elite cadre of highly trained specialists schooled in the dark arts of espionage and capable of operating around the world — from places like Beirut to Beijing.

Many of us who devoted our lives and careers to the clandestine service as CIA operations officers were shocked to hear Mr. Brennan announce two years ago that based on his modernization plan he no longer regards CIA as being in the espionage business. “We don’t steal secrets,” Mr. Brennan astonishingly revealed in an interview with NPR.

Instead of bolstering traditional espionage work, the CIA modernization plan limited the agency’s use of recruited spies and agents as sources of the human-based information America urgently needs to support its national security interests.

The Brennan plan instead called for other nations’ intelligence services to provide the CIA with spies as intelligence collectors. This is tantamount to the Air Force giving up its aircraft, or the Navy mothballing its fleets in order to rely on overseas friends to supply aircraft and ships when the United States needs them.

Real espionage involves first and foremost the recruitment of spies or reporting sources who steal information from other countries or organizations such as terrorists and foreign government.

An important feature of this process is that no one should know that our spies are stealing the information. Keeping the operations clandestine is fundamental to the credibility and reliability of the information. It’s like playing a hand of poker and knowing the cards held by other players without them knowing about it. Unilateral intelligence sources are the coin of the realm in the intelligence business and cannot be matched by the current emphasis of relying on liaison with friendly services.

When another intelligence service arranges for their spies to supply sources for CIA, the origin of the information is known to them and there is no way to control who else receives it. In a worst-case scenario, the intelligence will be compromised by these foreign states’ sources mixing damaging disinformation with reliable intelligence.

Perhaps the deadliest example of this over-reliance of foreign sources was the 2009 suicide bombing of a CIA operating base in Afghanistan. Seven CIA officers and contractors were killed when a terrorist double agent who was trusted by Jordan’s intelligence service blew himself up at the base.

Continuing this policy relying on foreign services would be just as unreliable as asking “overseas friends” to dispatch aircraft and ships on behalf of the United States in a crisis or conflict.

During the past year that Ms. Haspel has been CIA deputy director and running the agency’s day-to-day operations, she has done nothing to turn this dire situation around.

The problem can be seen in the CIA’s training facility near Williamsburg, Virginia, known as The Farm.

The facility is where future CIA officers are trained and under the Brennan modernization program, training was so denigrated that its courses have become a disastrous mishmash of half-baked concepts guaranteed to further diminish vital American espionage capabilities.

A more damaging aspect of the problem would be if these foreign-origin reporting sources were passed off to the White House and congressional oversight officials as CIA sources who were unilateral spies instead of merely contacts provided to the agency by other countries.

For those like Mr. Brennan who believe the CIA should not be stealing secrets, this process could be subverted into a paperwork exercise of running these faux overseas contacts through a seemingly legitimate source validation process and categorizing them as “recruited assets.”

This could be done in a bid to make the CIA appear to have its own recruited sources other than what they actually are and allow senior agency officials to assert that the CIA is on the right track and getting back to the basics of espionage.

The Senate, as it reviews Ms. Haspel’s qualifications to be CIA director, needs to take a closer look at the nominee and know clearly that she was part of a damaging CIA reform program. The Brennan modernization was a step backward and should not be continued as the United States confronts a growing array of threats that require the best intelligence support possible.

Brad Johnson, a retired CIA station chief and operations officer, is president of Americans for Intelligence Reform.

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