Disrupting the Intelligence Community

America’s Spy Agencies Need an Upgrade

Cleaning house: CIA headquarters, March 2005 Jason Reed / Courtesy Reuters

Some 40 years have passed since the Church Committee’s sweeping investigation of U.S. intelligence practices, fresh on the heels of the Watergate scandal. And ten years have gone by since the last major reorganization of the country’s spy agencies, enacted in the wake of 9/11. Both efforts led to a host of reforms—among them, the creation of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the adoption of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which I helped shepherd through Congress.

New challenges have prompted talk of change once again. The U.S. government’s recently acknowledged drone program, the contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities, and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent report on CIA detention and interrogation practices have fanned public anxieties about government overreach. Surprise developments, meanwhile, have blindsided U.S. officials. The disintegration of Syria, the Boston Marathon bombing, the precipitous rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the systematic hacking of U.S. computer networks—in one way or another, all caught Washington flat-footed. Last November, The Washington Post reported that CIA Director John Brennan was weighing a wholesale reorganization of the agency, one that would combine operational and analytic divisions into “hybrid units” dedicated to specific regions and threats. The paper’s sources described the plans as “among the most ambitious in CIA history.”

Yet rearranging the deck chairs will not be enough to prepare the intelligence community for the challenges that lie ahead. Instead, Washington must venture beyond the conventional wisdom and reckon with an alternative vision of the future. Imagine this: Ten years from now, the CIA’s primary mission will be covert action, an arena in which the agency can make a uniquely valuable contribution to national security. The NSA, for its part, will move away from collecting personal data, since private-sector firms have the resources to do the same task. And

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