The midnight oil is burning over at the Central Intelligence Agency as senior managers consider options relating to how to play new president Donald Trump and new director Mike Pompeo, neither of whom possesses any serious understanding either of intelligence operations or of how to lead 20,000 often difficult-to-manage employees.
With the exception of the 1976 turnover that followed shortly after the devastating Church Commission report and simultaneously brought in Jimmy Carter as president and Admiral Stansfield Turner as director, the agency has always been able to control the transitions and wind up on the right side of those in power. It has maintained its prerogatives through its use of an elaborate dog-and-pony briefing show that carefully revealed some of the organization’s most cherished secrets to convince the new boss of the immensely valuable product provided by CIA. John F. Kennedy was in that fashion beguiled by Allen Dulles before he soured on the relationship as a result of the dissimulation surrounding Bay of Pigs. Ronald Reagan, who was in any event inclined to be pro-agency, reportedly came away from his first major briefing astonished by what had been revealed.
Today, however, the CIA is in transition and under fire over the Russian hacking issue, though most believe that the war or words and tension with the president will largely vanish after the inauguration. With the post-9/11 reorganization of the intelligence apparatus—including the creation of a Director of National Intelligence, who is only nominally in charge but in control of a separate staff, and the expansion of Pentagon spying, the agency has lost a good deal of its exclusivity and clout.
Current Director John Brennan is seen as Obama’s man and is not popular in some circles inside the agency, where the president is viewed as weak and vacillating while Brennan is regarded as a presidential poodle, poseur, and yes-man. He is most notably disliked by the traditional spies from the former Deputy Directorate of Operations who have seen their elite status eroded under his leadership as he has promoted paramilitary officers instead of traditional agent handlers to lead the clandestine service. As Brennan will be departing in any event, few will defend the fusion centers that he has created to combine analytic and operational capabilities along the existing lines of the Counter Terrorism Center. Critics believe that putting intelligence collectors together with analysts who meet with the intelligence consumers will inevitably politicize what is being reported.
Most CIA employees are looking forward to the arrival of Pompeo, who promises to be hard-nosed and aggressive. But he will presumably take his lead from the National Security Council and White House staffs. As one of the first high-level appointees to the new administration, he is expected to stake out CIA’s position at the head of the table when the intelligence community convenes. The CIA is likely to be top dog when it comes to funding and will likely expand its operational reach in some parts of Asia and Africa, which are considered to be full of unstable and under-resourced governments that are vulnerable to the infiltration of groups such as ISIS. No one is expecting that the War on Terror will end any time soon.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.