Understanding Why Current CIA Analysis Generally is Useless

At risk of sounding like a cranky old man complaining about kids playing ball in the street in front of my house, I want to try to help the folks who have never worked as an analyst at the CIA understand why the current organization is virtually useless. It boils down to this very simple fact–CIA analysts now work in Mission Centers alongside with CIA operations officers and intelligence analysis takes a back seat to operational priorities.

How so? Let me take you back in time to 1985. In the old days the Directorate of Intelligence occupied the north wing of the CIA and the Directorate of Operations sat in the south wing. There was a time when there were doors separating the two wings–I understand it was in place until 1978. Prior to 1978, if you strolled out of your office in the Central American Branch, for example, and tried to go to the operations side of the house you were stopped at the halfway point to the other side by a locked door. Intelligence and Operations were kept separate. The Ops folks understandably wanted to protect their sources and feared that an analyst could compromise a sensitive asset.

When I came along in 1985, those doors had been removed and analysts and operations officers could, in theory, interact. But there was still a separation. The stereotypical analyst was a nerd. Not in the bad sense. But the majority of analysts were introverted personalities. The stereotypical operations officer was the exact opposite–outgoing, liked to socialize and bullshit.

I worked both sides of the house. I did two “internships” with the Operations folks in 1985/86 and then entered the trenches as an analyst. Analysts would start their day with a morning meeting to review overnight intelligence developments and identify possible articles that could be written and submitted to the National Intelligence Daily and/or the Presidential Daily Brief. At the end of the meeting, the analyst would head to the toilet where he or she would brush their teeth, floss and relieve themselves. I am not exaggerating. The mirrors in the bathrooms on the analytical side of the house were speckled with the results of flossing. What about doing a “number 1?” A number of the male analysts would enter a stall and close the door to urinate in private. The average analyst was not comfortable standing at the urinal chatting with a colleague while answering nature’s call.

Ops officers, by contrast, after their morning meeting or review of operational traffic from overseas, also would trundle off to the toilets. Few brushed their teeth and flossed at work (I presume most did that at home before heading to the office every morning). Male ops officers would stand shoulder to shoulder at the urinal and make un-woke jokes and chat up their colleagues.

I offer this crude example because it highlights the personality differences that characterized the Intelligence Directorate vice the Operations Directorate. (Note–I am not arguing that this was the ideal system, I am trying to help you understand the bureaucratic and personality dynamics that separated the two Directorates.)

Intelligence analysts rarely had access to operational traffic while Ops officers had full access to the raw intel the analysts were receiving. This created tension, especially when the operations side of the house was pursuing a policy objective such as supporting the mujahedeen in Afghanistan or the Contras in Central America. Analysts faced pressure to produce analysis that supported the operations programs and, in several instances, were not privy to what was actually happening on the ground in the conflict zones.

Let me offer one anecdote where I was a first hand witness. On Tuesday, March 15, 1988, I was part of a CIA briefing team sent to meet with members of Congress to discuss intelligence that the Sandinistas were massing troops on the southern border of Honduras in a location known colloquially as the Bocay Salient. There was a training base for the Contras in the Bocay. I was the Honduran analyst at the time and was accompanied by the military analyst from the Nicaraguan Branch and a representative of the Directorate of Operations who worked on the military ops in the Central American Task Force .

Halfway through the briefing, which was attended only by Republican members of the House, we received “intelligence” that Sandinista troops had entered the Bocay and were attacking the contra base. It was presented as if this was a modern day attack on the Alamo. Contra forces were fighting valiantly but being mauled by the more numerous Sandinista battalions. We ended the briefing and hurried back to Headquarters to try to figure out what was going on.

When we climbed into the CIA van to head back up the river to Headquarters, the Ops representative from the Central American Task Force began yelling at me and the military analyst from the Nicaragua Branch, accusing us of having helped create this crisis because our past analysis was not sufficiently supportive, in his opinion, of the Contra cause.

Upon arriving back at CIA Headquarters, I went to my terminal and pulled up the “intelligence” about the attack on the Contras. The intelligence told a different story. The Bocay Salient was very sparsely populated with people back then and the terrain featured mountains and triple canopy jungle. You could send an army division into that region and they would be lost in the jungle. Impossible terrain to move in force. The intelligence report from the CIA base camp in the Bocay stated that there had been contact several kilometers from the base with a Sandinista patrol. WHAT??!!

The members of Congress and the Reagan National Security team had been informed that a massacre, a la The Alamo, was underway. I received a phone call from one of Elliot Abrams’ senior staffers. Steve was in a panic and repeated to me the story of the Contras being wiped out. I calmed him down and read to him the actual details. His response, “OH MY GOD. I’ve got to tell Elliot.”

President Reagan had been briefed and was going to deliver a speech castigating the Democrats for not heeding his warnings about the Sandinista threat. And this is what happend:

President Reagan ordered 3,200 American troops sent to Honduras for military exercises Wednesday in what the White House described as ‘a measured response’ to a Nicaraguan invasion directed against U.S.-backed Contra rebels. . . .

The announcement, read to reporters at a late-night White House briefing, followed a day-long round of deliberations within the administration and on Capitol Hill on a cross-border offensive denied by the Nicaraguan government.

With U.S. officials charging the drive was intended to crush a Contra force weakened by the Feb. 29 cutoff of American aid, Fitzwater said Reagan ordered the action in response to a request from Honduran President Jose Azcona Hoyos. . . .

Although the White House had confirmed an earlier ‘request for assistance’ from Azcona, it was not described as an appeal for military support. Officials said the decision to send troops was a response to a subsequent request, conveyed to U.S. Ambassador Everett Briggs in Tegucigalpa around 5:30 p.m. EST, the same time a high-level review of options was under way in the White House Situation Room.


That, boys and girls, is how the sausage of foreign and military policy is made. This was pure theater. The Contra forces in the Bocay were in no danger. Yes, the Sandinistas had entered Honduras in a very remote, strategically unimportant area. But the United States seized on this incident to create a justification to deploy the 82nd Airborne to Honduras.

Now you may understand my cynicism and doubts about pronouncements from the U.S. intelligence community.

In 2015, then CIA Director John Brennan reorganized the CIA and brought the analysts and operations folks together in Mission Centers, e.g. Counter Terrorism Center, Counter Narcotics Center, Counter Proliferation Center, etc. On the superficial level this sounds like a dandy idea because analysts will now have direct access to what the operations folks are working on. But that is not how it works out.


Paul Pillar, a retired CIA officer, wrote a terrific piece about Brennan Rube Goldberg Initiative, The CIA and the Cult of Reorganization. Here are some of the key points:

Now the Central Intelligence Agency is being hit again with the reorganization bug, with changes that director John Brennan announced last week. The intelligence community has been subjected to this sort of thing at least as much as other parts of the federal bureaucracy. The most notable instance was a reorganization of the community a decade ago as the most visible part of the 9/11 Commission’s response to a popular demand to shake things up after a terrible terrorist attack. That change added new bureaucracy on top of continuing old organizations, and in the years since has given us little or no reason to believe that it was a net improvement.

The principal feature of the changes that Brennan announced is to move all of the agency’s operational and analytical work, and not just selected parts of it, into integrated “mission centers” covering issue areas defined either geographically or functionally. As with most other reorganizations, both criticism and praise tend to be overstated. Any change in a bureaucracy’s performance, for good or for ill, resulting from changing the wiring diagram will not be nearly as pronounced as either critics or promoters usually would lead us to believe.

A criticism of this newest reorganization, for example, is that it would lead to still more focus on current doings at the expense of longer-range analysis. But within each issue area there is no reason to believe that worthwhile long-range analysis cannot be done in the mission centers. Another line of criticism involves a feared compromise of the integrity of analysis because of overly close association of the analysts with operators. This would only be a problem, however, where covert action is involved. Although some unfortunate experiences involving Central America in the 1980s demonstrate the corrupting potential, covert action—despite the public image of what the CIA does—constitutes a small (and usually well-compartmented) portion of the agency’s work. There is a substantial hazard of policy preferences influencing analysis stemming from relations with policy-makers, but that is a separate matter from relations between analysts and operators within an intelligence agency.


The last sentence is the critical point. Imagine you are the senior analyst responsible for Russia in the Mission Center handling the Ukraine crisis. Do you think that analyst is allowed to make the historically factual argument that Russia believed it was facing a future attack from NATO because of NATO’s stated intentions to bring Ukraine into the NATO universe? Do you think the analyst would be allowed to point out that U.S. and NATO military exercises in Ukraine, along with training of Ukrainian forces, had heightened Russian fears? The answer is no. Any analyst daring to push such verboten issues would be committing career suicide. Plus the analyst would be accused of undermining U.S. and NATO policy.

In short, you cannot (or should not) put analysts and operations folks in the same tent, so to speak. Operations will always–I REPEAT–always take precedence over analysis, especially when it comes to issues that are top priority for the White House. This is why I believe the current U.S. intelligence on Ukraine cannot be trusted. It is compromised by U.S. internal politics and by CIA bureaucratic politics.

I believe the United States needs a professional intelligence service that is comprised of analysts who have the task of reviewing all source intelligence and providing political leaders with an unvarnished, apolitical assessment of what is going on in the world. What do I mean by “apolitical?” The analyst and his or her supervisors are not fretting over how the White House or Congress will react to analysis based on genuine intelligence that is out of step with Administration priorities.

I also believe that the United States needs professional case officers who are skilled at recruiting and managing foreign agents who provide the United States with the national secrets of their country.

What has damaged, perhaps irreparably, the CIA’s ability to carry out these two missions is that the operations side of the house also engages in covert and clandestine paramilitary operations. Those activities, because of the amounts of money involved and the risk to the prestige of the United States, inevitably take precedence and put the other two mission–analysis and recruiting information sources–on the back burner.

A great example of this is what happened in the aftermath of the U.S. covert action in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, captures the hubris of that event. Once our mission to force the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan was achieved, Afghanistan fell off the radar as a collection priority and the intelligence analysts lacked the information and resources to track the rise of Al Qaeda. Doing analysis on Afghanistan was a backwater job, with little prospects for promotion, during the 1980s. It was only in the aftermath of 9-11 that Afghanistan became sexy again. And, once again, the analysis took a back seat to the operational priorities of defeating the Taliban. How did that work out?


Thanks for sharing!