Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon is planning to expand significantly its clandestine human collection efforts. In theory, this is all to the good. For the longest time, the only real player in this game was the Central Intelligence Agency—who very much liked that fact—as did the military itself. CIA didn’t want the competition and the military services didn’t really want to carve out for its officers career paths that meant officers might be less than gentlemen.
Of course, the problem with this system was that the Agency’s focus was on collecting intelligence for senior policymakers, largely ignoring the Pentagon’s narrower set of intelligence needs. And so, every few years a new administration would come along and a new set of Defense policymakers would raise the prospect of creating a clandestine branch for the Defense Intelligence Agency. After all, this was not such an innovation. During the Cold War, the Soviets were able to put a lot more human collection capability “on the street” because it had both the KGB and the GRU—its military clandestine service. And indeed, they still have two services, as do the Chinese.
But typically, the reaction to creating a full-up Pentagon clandestine service in the US was outright negative or, as has been the case in recent years, begrudgingly ok’ing more DoD clandestine effort as long as it focused on the military’s specific war needs. However, according to the Post account, the expanded effort will have the Pentagon’s “spy service focused on emerging threats” as well. “Among the Pentagon’s top intelligence priorities, officials said, are Islamist militant groups in Africa, weapons transfers by North Korea and Iran, and military modernization underway in China.” As in the past, the argument for going down this road is, according to the report, “shore[ing] up intelligence on subjects that the CIA is not able or willing to pursue.” Or, as one Defense Department official was quoted as saying: “We are in a position to contribute to defense priorities that frankly CIA is not.”
The only caveat to praising this new effort simply is that the CIA will still be in charge of training the DIA’s clandestine officers and CIA station chiefs will still have a veto over DIA collection operations. One would hope that, by this time, the DIA would have had sufficient experience in the field to train its own folks and perhaps create a skill set that might be more innovative than the Agency’s mixed history of clandestine efforts. And with CIA station chiefs calling the shots on who does what “in country,” congressional and executive branch overseers will have to watch to ensure that the expanded DIA clandestine effort doesn’t just become a CIA clone.