A few years ago, as a case officer with what is now called the National Clandestine Service (NCS), I was involved in an operation that had the potential to yield valuable intelligence on a rogue state's financial stability and political intentions toward the United States.
To help me, I needed another Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer with the background and expertise of a sophisticated international banker. Given the nature of the operation and the political and diplomatic risks involved if exposed, I also needed CIA headquarters approval.
I got neither.
Why? Because the type of operation I was proposing had not been done before, and the person I needed to help did not exist on the CIA payroll.
Let me be clear: What the NCS has accomplished post-9/11 has been remarkable. The clandestine service has helped keep America safe and continues to be the envy of every spy service in the world. What makes this achievement even more remarkable, however, is that the NCS has done this with a bureaucracy, an organizational structure, a personnel promotion system, and an approach to operational activity better suited to the 20th century. At some point, the NCS needs to change in the face of 21st-century challenges. That time has come.
The NCS culture is based on tradition, exclusivity, some myth, and a pervasive attitude among "insiders" that suggests that if you haven't been there and done it, then no one on the "outside," including Congress or neophyte administration staffers, can understand or reform it.
Many insiders, of course, proclaim that the agency has already changed dramatically. As evidence of reform, they point to an increase and shift of valuable resources to the CIA's Counterterrorism Center; the creation in the 1990s of entities such as the Counterproliferation Division; and to the increase in the overall number of case officers and analysts supporting not only US efforts against terrorism, but also the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They publicly cite the hiring of new officers with language capabilities and the resurgence of the effort to conduct "nontraditional" operations.
All this is true, but it is simply not enough.
To effect meaningful change in a culture steeped in tradition and legend, it will take a leader within the CIA willing to take on the challenge. A bold leader willing to break crockery. One who can accept risk-taking and well-intentioned but sometimes unproductive operational activity. And, equally important, a leader willing to impose penalties on those inside the NCS who clearly stray from mandated and officially approved "rules of engagement." The strong hope is that new CIA Director Leon Panetta is that person.
For starters, the NCS needs to focus and improve on five "C's:" collection, commercial operations, covert action, career development, and collaboration.
The ways NCS collects human intelligence overseas are founded on legacy precepts that date back nearly 60 years and have been overtaken by changes in the operational environment, the transnational nature of intelligence targets, and advances in technology. New leadership at the CIA needs to encourage the reevaluation of these precepts with an acceptance that cookie-cutter answers no longer apply in diverse and often unfamiliar and difficult targeting environments.
The existing NCS cover model also needs to be reexamined. Under the traditional model, case officers use "official" US Government cover to carry out much of their business. In the 21st century, the NCS needs to hire more officers with the requisite access and relevant business and technical experience to maneuver in a complex operational world outside the diplomatic cocktail circuit.
Covert action, too, suffers in the NCS from a perpetual identity crisis, uncertain with each change in administration of its support or its home within the NCS. From my perspective, CIA leadership should devise a new covert-action strategy tailored to meet head-on today's more-complicated threats.
As for career development, the "generalist" case officer legend still thrives in the NCS. Former case officers train cadres of new recruits to fit the "jacks of all trades" mold. Currently this formula remains the path to promotion and success in the clandestine service. It is essential that this system be reevaluated and more frequently reward and encourage specialization.
Finally, everyone's idée fixe – collaboration. Collaboration needs to be improved across three broad sectors. First, with foreign liaison intelligence services that provide often vital and hard-to-get intelligence. Second, with other US intelligence agencies (including the military) which, despite improvement, still falls far short of where it needs to be. And third, with the American private sector, which often possesses critical information about important international issues that frequently fails to find its way to those in the intelligence community who need it. Unfortunately, collaboration is still plagued by turf battles that have the potential to undermine America's security.
With a new administration and a new CIA director, there is an opportunity to look forward, modernize, and shape the future of our nation's spy service. This is critically important not only for the NCS, but also for the safety of our nation. The dilemma facing the new team is whether it can break through the NCS culture and stand up to traditionalists who have proven formidable in the past, and who remain skeptical of reformers and their attempts to change what "outsiders" supposedly cannot understand. If the NCS is to maintain its status and effectiveness as the "best of the best," then we need a leadership team willing to take on the challenge of fundamental reform.
Joseph W. Augustyn spent 28 years in the CIA's clandestine service and, post-9/11, was deputy associate director of Central Intelligence for Homeland Security.