Last month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new U.S. espionage agency: the Defense Clandestine Service, or DCS. DCS is expected to expand the Pentagon's espionage personnel by several hundred over the next few years, while reportedly leaving budgets largely unchanged. The news nonetheless surprised some observers in Washington because the move appeared, at least initially, to be a direct challenge to the Central Intelligence Agency, whose National Clandestine Service leads the country's spy work overseas. Then came a second surprise: former CIA officers and other intelligence experts started applauding. The question is why.

Four reasons stand out. First, DCS can be regarded as a rebranding and upgrading of the Defense Intelligence Agency's espionage unit, the Defense HUMINT Service (HUMINT stands for "human intelligence"), which was created in 1992 to improve the coordination and accountability of military espionage. The CIA has long supported the efforts to improve the military's HUMINT tradecraft, but despaired because the military's case officers never stayed long in their jobs. The new DCS will have ranking general officers and field grade officers who stay put for the long term. 

Second, the CIA likes the idea behind DCS because it has been gaining advantages from improved military espionage over the past few years -- the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden is just one example of the kind of success that close collaboration can achieve. The CIA would like to have that capability against national targets outside the current war zones. The CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the military services, diplomats, and law enforcement officers all need discriminating and persistent engagement with an increasingly dispersed and mercurial adversary. Thanks to the growth of broadband communications and social networking, terrorists, drug syndicates, and arms traffickers operate as overlapping networks. This is a new kind of engagement that requires innovative operations within the legal bounds of civil societies. To respond to such threats, the CIA and the Pentagon see advantages in working as a networked team too. So, the better human intelligence that comes from the military, the better the National Clandestine Service. 

For the CIA, the less agreeable issue with the creation of DCS is the notion that the military might be producing the best case officers against some targets. The CIA holds that good case officers can recruit anyone. But recruiting agents is only one part of espionage; other parts involve assessing knowledge, judging risk and reliability, and then knowing what to ask for next. Against military targets, the military may be most successful. Think of it this way: if you want to collect intelligence on the nuclear weapons capabilities of a foreign state, would you prefer to have scientists or non-scientists recruiting foreign physicists and weapons designers?

Third is the matter of integration. Good national and strategic intelligence is critical for operations against transnational targets, but while the military's tactical awareness is improving rapidly, strategic context has often been lacking. Case in point: in January 2010, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, now head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote "Fixing Intelligence in Afghanistan," a stinging report on intelligence deficiencies on the battlefield. The CIA has had a hard time improving the situation without being granted direct access to the problems that the military wants solved. DCS can help bridge the divide.

Fourth, chasing today's amorphous, mobile targets, such as insurgents or terrorists, is logistically difficult. Since the Pentagon has an unparalleled global reach and specializes in logistics, and the CIA has deep ties with target countries, it makes sense to gain economies of scale through combined and complementary operations. That will require overcoming the trust gap that has sometimes weakened military-civilian intelligence cooperation. Rather than representing an escalation of turf tensions, DCS is a boost to the cooperation that has been developing for some years through institutionalized joint training and collaboration in the field. Former CIA officials I have spoken with expressed optimism about the Pentagon's new initiative, using the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to illustrate the point.

The creation of DCS, however, also poses several risks. Chief among them is the prospect that the CIA will lose control over choosing targets and creating priorities for collection as the requirements for defense HUMINT gain further attention and federal budget cutting forces intelligence dollars to decline overall. The State Department, with no clandestine capability of its own, relies on the CIA to remember its needs too. As the CIA works ever closer with DCS, State's priorities may get less attention than they should.

More, if the creation of DCS simply increases the Defense Department's presence inside U.S. embassies, it may complicate the role of CIA station chiefs and U.S. ambassadors, who are legally responsible for operations in the countries in which they are stationed. A stronger Pentagon role might throw off the delicate balance required for effective in-country intelligence operations. The priorities of regional combatant commanders, ambassadors, and civilian intelligence agencies do not always align. If collection priorities or covert actions become skewed toward what the Pentagon wants, civilian policymaking might be compromised, and the risks of poorly coordinated field operations will increase.

To ensure that improved military espionage does not degrade intelligence support for diplomacy and other national security operations, CIA chiefs of station need to retain their status as national managers of human intelligence. Working with ambassadors and combatant commands, the CIA can keep the system infused with the balance of purpose that the National Security Council and the president expect.

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  • JENNIFER SIMS is Senior Fellow for National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a Visiting Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
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