The Corner

The CIA’s Bureaucracy Problem

An Italian court recently sentenced 23 CIA employees in absentia for their role in the 2003 Abu Omar rendition.

We should capture terrorists anywhere, any time, but we should get the job done right and with a minimum of bureaucracy. Real spying is inexpensive and requires few people. The basic act of espionage is a single CIA officer meeting a single source — a person with access to secrets on terrorists or nuclear proliferators, for example — in a dingy hotel room in a dysfunctional country.

Any CIA operation that is revealed to the public, however, shows these telltale signs: The operation looks busy, a lot of people are involved, and large amounts of money are spent. Often you’ll hear the CIA accused of being risk averse. I agree. However, risk aversion is a complex concept. The CIA will sometimes conduct risky operations in order to achieve a more important goal: looking busy. In the Abu Omar operation, 21 Agency employees flew to Italy to abduct a single terrorist suspect — as an eminent scholar put it, “21 people to get one fat Egyptian!” — who was already under surveillance by the Italian police. The 21 people stayed in five-star hotels and chatted with headquarters on open-line cell phones, all at great expense and awful tradecraft. The number of people managing the operation from headquarters was enormous. But it was a successful operation in that it spent a lot of money, made a lot of people look active, and suggested the CIA’s willingness to take risk.

CIA officials are quick to deny that the organization is risk averse by pointing to risky operations that went wrong. This darker, more complex, passive-aggressive aspect of risk aversion seems to say: We can certainly do risky operations, but here’s what happens when you make us get off our couch and do them.

Take a look at any CIA activity that is revealed in the future and ask yourself: Was this a traditional, inexpensive intelligence operation involving a meeting between a CIA officer and a human source to gather intelligence? Or was this an operation designed to spend a lot of money, to make a lot of people look busy, and to give the appearance that the CIA is willing to take risk?

Whenever we see CIA employees released from bureaucracy, we see success. The tactical intelligence production within Iraq is excellent; the early Afghan campaign, featuring no offices and a flat chain of command, just a few guys and bags of money, was extraordinary.

– “Ishmael Jones” is a former deep-cover officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. He is the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, published last year by Encounter Books.