CIA Reorganizes to Target Islamic State
Top officials create new teams of spies, analysts and scientists in fight against global threats
By Damian Paletta
June 14, 2015
McLEAN, Va.--Top Central Intelligence Agency officials are pressing spies, analysts, scientists and even economists into new teams as they broaden their efforts against Islamic State militants and other global threats.
The reorganization is part of a broader effort by director John Brennan to break down CIA "stove pipes" that have been in place for decades, which some felt isolated the agency's secretive spy network from its internal religious experts, computer hackers, linguists, and others.
"As our analysts gain better insight into how ISIL is operating, that will inform the efforts of the people in the [spy division] who are charged with collecting additional information and intelligence about ISIL," CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said in an interview, using another name for Islamic State. "It will help steer them into areas where we have gaps."
The White House, Pentagon, and numerous intelligence agencies are re-evaluating how they combat Islamic State, which has expanded its reach and influence in the past year into more corners of Iraq and Syria, as well as North Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
After Islamic State seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi in recent weeks and expanded into Anbar province, the Pentagon said it would send 450 additional U.S. troops to the area to accelerate the training of security forces. The State Department is pressing to keep an international coalition intact. But the CIA's strategy largely has been secret.
Islamic State militants pose a much different terror threat than al Qaeda did in the early 2000s, using social media to win converts and a harder-to-stop financial strategy that uses extortion and war gains to fund operations, instead of tapping wealthy donors.
This model has made it a more difficult terror organization to stop, said current and former U.S. officials. The officials are hopeful that the CIA's burgeoning structure will better prepare the agency to thwart the expanding terror group.
The CIA traditionally had dealt with organizations such as Islamic State through its Counterterrorism Center, a group of spies and analysts who worked to prevent imminent threats.
Mr. Brennan, however, wants to use the agency's redesign to confront Islamic State through numerous new divisions, each of which has its own network of spies, analysts, linguists, computer and cultural experts.
For example, of the CIA's 10 "mission centers"--it previously had just two--at least five will be tasked with combating Islamic State, including groups called "Near East," "Europe and Eurasia," "South and Central Asia," and "Global Issues."
CIA officials will be scrutinizing Islamic State's foothold in Mosul, Iraq, its communication among fighters who return from Syria to Europe, as well as a group of religious experts who specialize in radical extremism.
A network of computer analysts will be assigned to each team to provide support, screen social media and develop spyware.
Such collaboration will help with "targeting our operations against the areas in ISIL where we think there are vulnerabilities," Mr. Cohen said. As the agency's spies "develop other information, [it] will feed back to our analysts."
The restructuring so far is going well, he said, though the reviews from several former agency officials have been more mixed. Some said the changes were overdue, as the CIA largely had been operating under a personnel model put in place in the 1960s. But others said it would take much more time for the agency's spies to feel comfortable working so closely with analysts and computer experts, as they tend to be more independent.
"I see it as a reflection of how the U.S. is reacting to the post-Arab spring world where the threats are multiplying and becoming more intractable," said Bruce Hoffman, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University.
He said the various threats "aren't so easily compartmentalized as they once were" and require more coordination among intelligence agencies.
Congress and the White House realigned intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, pressing them to work more closely together and share information. But much of the focus was on preventing attacks and killing militant leaders.
CIA officials, however, believed more internal changes were necessary to maximize cooperation given the diverse threats, including Islamic State, but also Russia, China, and Iran.
These changes are unfolding as the CIA works to regain its footing after a series of scandals and setbacks.
Congressional Democrats blasted the agency last year over allegations that detainees had been abused while in CIA custody after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
And in May, the White House revealed that U.S. officials errantly had killed two hostages, including a U.S. citizen, during a drone strike in Pakistan. The White House didn't identify the drone strike as a CIA program, but officials familiar with the incident confirmed it was carried out by the agency.
Much of the agency's operations still remain covert and secret. Two unnamed CIA officials were killed in the line of duty last year, the agency recently revealed, though it wouldn't say what they were doing or where they were killed.
Mr. Cohen, who joined the agency in February after spending six years at the Treasury Department, has already visited CIA stations in Asia and Africa, in addition to one "domestic station" that he would not identify, talking to officials about the changes and checking on staff morale.
Mr. Brennan and Mr. Cohen have stressed that the CIA reorganization is about much more than combating Islamic State because it would impact the agency's teams focused on China, North Korea, and even South and Central America.
Islamic State, however, could pose the biggest near-term test for the CIA realignment, particularly given congressional pressure on the Obama administration to rethink its approach to battling the militants.
Write to Damian Paletta at email@example.com