Analysis: CIA retains special operations role in post-9/11 era

CIA HQ

CIA HQ

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Despite its ‘shoot ’em-up’ image in popular culture, the Central Intelligence Agency is predominantly responsible for collecting and analyzing intelligence for the benefit of US policymakers. The Agency’s paramilitary tasks —also known as ‘special operations’— form a somewhat smaller part of its overall mission. The CIA is America’s only government agency that can legally authorized by the President to perform special operations. The question is, should it? One of the 9/11 Commission Report’s chief recommendations was that the CIA should be stripped of its special operations function, and that the latter should be surrendered to the Department of Defense, in the form of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Clearly, JSOC has played an important role in post-9/11 counterterrorist operations. Yet it is equally clear that, not only has the CIA not been stripped of its paramilitary tasks, but the latter have actually been drastically augmented by the Obama administration —not least through the continuing unmanned drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A well-written analysis by Politico’s Josh Gerstein correctly notes that recommendations to eliminate the CIA’s paramilitary role and transfer it to the Pentagon “remain unpopular in the highest echelons”. The article quotes Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor and former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, who is one of the few intelligence planners that favor transferring special operations from the CIA to the Department of Defense. He says that military functions “ought to be performed by trained military organizations […]. Do you want the CIA operating a combatant command responsible for fighting our twilight wars, especially in a world when twilight wars are the wars we mainly fight?”. The argument seems to be that, as special operations become increasingly central in America’s ‘war on terrorism’, they should be commanded by a military, rather than a civilian, agency. An unnamed former CIA official puts forward the Agency’s view in the article: what do you do “if you have a [host] country that wants to deny a program”? In other words, how do you exercise plausible deniability through the Department of Defense? “[T]he CIA is going to [have to] move to the front of the queue”, he answers. The article concludes with a quote by Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), who argues that the Agency’s “new operational [paramilitary] missions […] could distract from the CIA’s central task of gathering and analyzing intelligence”. Ironic, considering that few within the US intelligence community are clear about the precise mission of the NCTC, which Leiter directed until very recently.

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