The Business of Intelligence is Not Business

From Diogenes

Here we go again.  The Administration has announced the creation of the White House Office of American Innovation, tasked with crafting ideas to reshape the federal bureaucracy to make it leaner and more effective.  For more details, see and

The organization will be run by an individual whose sole credential is being the boss’s son-in-law (Hmm.  Welcome to a sure-fail principle of human resource management from the business world.  I’d be more comfortable if he was ever in a job from which he could get fired.).

I won’t presume to comment upon the applicability of business principles to the entire federal government, whose raison d’etre is not to make money.  (Plus we’ve seen this movie before.  New administrations try to give the impression that they’re offering something entirely new.  This initiative is reminiscent of Al Gore’s Reinventing Government in the 1990s.  You probably have your own views on its success.)  I’ll stick to how this may affect intelligence issues, based upon previous efforts to impose business principles.

In the 2000s, an outside business executive introduced to the CIA the Working Capital Fund, by which the administrative budget (for things like printing, logistics, and the like) was taken from the managers of these functions and placed in the hands of those who engaged in the formal mission of the Agency—providing intelligence.  If a “customer” could get an administrative service for less on the outside market, one could purchase it there.  The Working Capital Fund created a caste system of second-class citizens, beholden to analysts, ops officers, and scientists, who no longer were colleagues, but supplicants.  The system led to massive shifts in personnel, loss of expertise, and plummeting morale.

What happens if we spread this idea to the Intelligence Community as a whole?  Rather than collaborating and integrating efforts toward a common vision and purpose, as has been the case in recent years, it will again create competition across and within IC member agencies.  This in turn will lead to reluctance to share information and insights, again, across and within agencies.  And we all remember where that led—Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and other surprises which could have been avoided with adequate intelligence sharing and dissemination.

Part of the Administration’s plan is to provide products earlier and cheaper (“more securely”—always a concern for intelligence officers, goes unmentioned).  For intelligence officers overseas, this idea generates pressures to “pitch” a developmental—a potential source who is being wooed by a case officer—too early, because of demands by the business mentality to get things done now.  Development of the enduring trust between case officer and asset (overseas spy) simply cannot be rushed without damage to what is intended to be a long-term relationship.  “Seeding” operations—establishing assets who might not be called upon immediately, but who are invaluable when needed—would fall off the to-do list because they do not add to this quarter’s bottom line.

How one determines the value of an intelligence product goes unanswered.  What is the value of a piece of intelligence that shapes a policymaker’s thinking, that provides warning of a crisis that can be prevented, that materially contributes to the national security, that saves lives—American and foreign?

Who pays for these intelligence products?  Intelligence has multiple customers at numerous levels—White House, Cabinet, other federal, state, local, and tribal organizations.  Will lower-level organizations—which might be able to use the intelligence directly—have the financial wherewithal to purchase intelligence insights when the proposed budget includes massive cuts?

Intelligence officers—and I suspect many other government workers—are not motivated by dollars.  At CIA, the key motivations are mission, service to country, pride in America. We’re often told that we can make far more money in the private sector.  Maybe we can, but the psychic benefits of making a difference and making history far outweigh financial considerations.  Intelligence needs the type of person who puts country first; sound business principles put profit first.  Trying to create a money-based intelligence bottom line misses the point of intelligence and of service.

Some individuals have monetized intelligence products.  They’re called hostile intelligence services, who try to buy American national security secrets from spies.  Now that’s an encouraging business model.

The Future of Secrecy in a World of Mass Exposure

From Susan Hasler
The CIA has a portrait wall along one of the wide, windowed corridors that line its interior courtyard. Look out the windows and you see magnolia trees that are magnificent when pink in bloom. Look to the paintings and you see a line of former directors, dark-suited men posed in front of globes, flags, Agency seals, and other symbols of power. Even those that are smiling have that dour “I’ve got a secret” look in their eyes. The secrets, of course, were the key to their power. In my two decades at the Agency, I saw a half dozen pictures added to that wall, until the latest reached the end of the corridor. Then one day my husband and I came in to find that the portraits had been moved closer together, leaving room for many more future directors. The same phrase popped into our minds at once: “That’s optimistic.”
We were already beginning to doubt that the old and cranky bureaucracy of secrecy could change fast enough to survive. What is the future of CIA in a world of Wikileaks, Russian hackers, and Snowdens? Does it double down and install more firewalls, limit distribution of intelligence, and crack down on the contacts employees can make with the outside, or do they figure out a new path that will require serious rethinking of how we handle secrecy?
There are conflicting views of secrecy within the Agency, generally corresponding to where an individual works.  Those on the operational side of the house tend to take a “slippery slope” view. Protect everything. Admit nothing. It is understandable for those out in the field who have human assets at stake, but it gets silly at times. For example, as an employee, I could’t acknowledge the existence of a training facility that has been depicted in popular movies. As an analyst, I once had to get a senior manager to weigh in before the operators would allow me to use a piece of sensitive intelligence in an article I was writing for the then vice president. What is the use of collecting intelligence if you can’t use it for the VP? 
Which brings us to the view on secrecy that tends to prevail among analysts. Yes, certain things have to remain secret, but our job is to analyze and distribute our findings for use by policymakers. We need to be able to talk about things and collaborate with counterparts in other parts of government. We also need to talk to academics and other outside experts to produce the best possible analysis. 
Analysts know that the real “secrets” only comprise a part of the judgments we make. Open source material and collaboration with colleagues is often the larger part. Perhaps the most important ingredient of the analysis is our training in overcoming bias and an office ethic that does its best to shut politics out (yes, I’m political now, but that came after I left the Agency). Unbiased analysis is at a premium these days, but its utility is limited by the fact that most Agency analytical judgments are secrets, even when they could be easily declassified.
The utility of the analysis is also limited by the fact that most CIA products are overclassified. Analysts make a classification decision at the end of every paragraph. The default move is to slap on an S NF (Secret Noforn) for B&A or background and analysis. Meaning, it’s secret because I’m an analyst and what I write is informed by secret material even if nothing in this paragraph can be specifically connected to a secret report. Typing that S NF becomes so automatic that occasionally I found myself adding it to paragraphs of short stories I wrote at home that had nothing to do with the CIA. You type S NF because there are no penalties for overclassification, only for underclassification. 
The problem is that overclassifying intelligence makes it less likely that it will be seen and used by the people who need it. People who worked at State Department used to tell me that they had to go to a special room to read highly classified reports. They admitted that they often didn’t bother. 
So what does the CIA do in the wake of the latest Wikileaks release, double down on secrecy or take a different tack? I would argue that we cannot and should not continue trying to protect everything. The key judgments from Nation Intelligence Estimates should be routinely declassified after removing all reference to sources and methods. I think this would serve the American people better than making the bulk of intelligence available to only a limited audience. 
CIA should focus on protecting those things truly worthy of protection: human and technical sources. It should give its analysts better training on making classification decisions.
Perhaps the Agency should consider occasionally sacrificing secrets in the interest of shining a light on an evil. I must admit that I would love to see CIA respond to the latest Wikileaks release by publishing every last bit of dirt it has on Julian Assange and his connections. Of course, that will never happen because of where some of those connections might lead, but it makes for delicious fantasy.