Petraeus and the Culture of the CIA

Petraeus and the Culture of the CIA

The Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman has an interesting profile today of Michael Morell, a veteran CIA insider (31 years in) who is tapped to help guide the new director, David Petraeus, as he steps out of the uniform and into the suit, through the maze of internal CIA culture.  (It might be behind the subscriber wall.)

In a rare interview, Mr. Morell, a longtime agency power with a nearly nonexistent public profile, emphasized the importance of humility for an agency stained by intelligence misses over 9/11 and weapons in Iraq and controversy over interrogation techniques and rendition. “We end up having bits of information that have a multitude of possible explanations,” he says. “You’ve got to be really humble about the business we’re in.” Some agency veterans say Mr. Morell may be too much of an insider. He has never worked anywhere else, and might miss areas where the CIA’s culture or management are due for a change, they point out.

Gen. Petraeus, the agency’s fifth director in eight years, is the four-star general who led allied troops in Afghanistan, steeped in a culture that confers authority with the insignia on an officer’s uniform. Mr. Morell rose in an agency averse to hierarchy and hostile to leaders who don’t assimilate.

Petraeus has indicated in various ways that a high priority for him is the intelligence and analysis side of the CIA, in which Petraeus has had experience as an outside military consumer of the CIA’s intelligence product.  I would hope, however, that he not neglect the forward-looking legal-policy architecture of the CIA’s role in operations.  These include drone operations and special operations, and I’d suggest there are two basic issues that can’t be ignored.  One is the increasing integration of military and civilian intelligence operations: what is the legal architecture from the standpoint of domestic, military, and international law, and how is the US government’s view of the legitimacy and legality of that framework conveyed to the public?  The second is closely related to the first: in a world in which US operations in these arenas are increasingly in the “deniable” category, rather than truly “covert” and therefore “unknown,” what are the rules by which such operations are legitimately conducted?

The connection between these two is that simple silence, or the ability to figure that either no one really knows that the operation took place, and hence it can take place in some space that is ungoverned by law or rules – well, that is gone, at least for the United States.  Merely “deniable” inevitably forces questions of legitimacy, which in the United States forces questions of law, international and domestic.  The American public does not have some burning, Assange-like desire to reveal operational secrets, but it does want to feel like there is some legitimate domestic process in place for accountability, even if it is necessarily secret.  That requires standards.

I am all in favor of drone strikes and targeted killing and special operations by both military and CIA teams; I am also convinced that the public acceptance and legitimacy of those operations will be undermined bit by bit unless successive American administrations make clear that “covert” does not mean “standardless.”  I don’t think this is an especially difficult task as far the American public is concerned – more difficult with the elites of the universities, NGO world, think tanks, etc. who, regarding themselves as players and not mere bystanders like the public, demand a quid pro quo for sign-off.  A lot of legitimacy is being willing to assert the standards one thinks are right, announce them and defend them, while flat out denying any obligation to discuss operations anywhere but in formal and secret oversight processes.

This does require sustained attention and a recognition that crystallizing legitimacy is a long term process, a process of accretion – hard to sustain in the face of day to day pressures, and yet crucial to institutions.  That alone would be enough to ensure that no one ever quite got around to executing a long term strategy of elaborating, in effect, a set of legal-policy standards for covert operations.  What might force the issue forward, however, is that the much vaunted integration of military and CIA operations does require legal standards, because that is already a requirement built into any military operation, and if these are going to be jointly and integrated operations, the military is not free to leave those standards behind just because it is “covert.”  Formalizing a set of standards applicable to special operations that would be a good thing, but I would guess that only Petraeus, given his standing with the military and given his new intelligence position, is in a position to direct the attention and resources to do so.

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