CIA Expands Drone Use, But Has it Stopped Investing in Human Intelligence?


It has been an interesting, if puzzling, week in the realm of U.S. national security. The Defense Department is re-focusing its espionage efforts, while the Central Intelligence Agency is expanding its paramilitary operations. The line that divides Langley and the Pentagon is increasingly thin.

The Obama administration has authorized the CIA to expand its targeted drone campaign against Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen to include “fighters whose names aren’t known but who are deemed high-value terrorism targets or threats to the U.S.” This news followed on the heels of the Pentagon’s announcement of the new Defense Clandestine Service, adding a new agency to the already gargantuan Intelligence Community. The still nebulous role of the DCS will be to realign the military’s human intelligence capability beyond current war zones.

PolicyMic’s Andrew Pasternak wrote a thorough piece this week about the new DCS and what it might bring to the intelligence table. It’s a good read.

But with the subsequent news that the CIA now has greater leeway in who it targets in Yemen, I'm wondering, “Why does it seem like we have an intelligence agency that does the work the Pentagon should do? And why is the Pentagon re-investing in work the CIA ought to do?” 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to a blending of roles between the world of intelligence and the world of the military. Both work better when they can find ways to work together. But this feels more like role reversal. The CIA operates targeted counterterrorism operations, whereas the Pentagon is putting a higher premium on better intelligence, both its collection and analysis.

The latter case is more strategic and beneficial in outlook, but it is the former that should raise eyebrows. Shouldn’t the role of an intelligence organization be to solely collect and analyze intelligence? Of course, the CIA has indulged in paramilitary operations since its inception, but that need not be the continuing trend. What the Pentagon is doing with the creation of DCS, or hopes to do, is exactly what the CIA ought to be doing now: shifting the focus away from war zones and toward emerging strategic threats, like Iran and China.

One of the major failures in the decade prior to 9/11 was the CIA’s inability to assess America’s next security challenge after the end of the Cold War, despite ample evidence of the rise in virulent religious extremism. It was still ensconced in a Cold War mindset going into the 21st Century and one worries now about a potential failure to assess new threats with Iraq and Afghanistan having “dominated America’s security landscape for the past decade.”

I appreciate that Pentagon and Langley remain focused on counterterrorism and this is not to suggest that terrorism is no longer a strategic threat to U.S. national security. Quite the contrary.

But I worry that the CIA has not only exceeded its original mandate, but has also been seduced by its technological capability. Shouldn’t we want to see Langley re-investing in the value of human intelligence?  

I’ll give the ever-perceptive Andrew Exum the last, and most concise word: “It’s great to have an intelligence agency with a knife in its teeth, but the primary mission of an organization is to gather and analyze intelligence, not to thwack bad guys.”