Earlier this month, CIA Director John Brennan announced his plans for an organizational overhaul of the Agency. He put forward two major changes: the creation of a new directorate that will centralize the Agency’s cyber capabilities under the intentionally opaque name of “Digital Innovation” and the creation of ten new centers that would mix operators, that is, Agency personnel that run foreign spies, and analysts. What areas—what national security topics—the ten new centers would cover was left unstated by Brennan.

Skeptics of Brennan’s plan see it them as just a matter of moving and rearranging boxes and lines on an organizational flow chart: an old Washington game that adopts the appearance of reforming while still leaving deeper, more fundamentally flawed bureaucratic cultures untouched.

There is some truth to this criticism.  However, organizational rearrangements can matter and can change how business is done by changing reporting and incentive structures. Our own constitution was adopted precisely because the first US constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was found inadequate in part precisely because it’s “lines and boxes” (the branches of government) were not sufficiently delineated and properly structured for effective governing.
As the news stories of Brennan’s proposed plans have noted, the creation of the topic centers builds upon the apparent success of the Intelligence Community’s National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), where analysts and operators have worked cheek by jowl for the past few years.  By most accounts, this side-by-side arrangement has sharpened the focus of analysts to address senior policymakers and military officers’ most pressing concerns, while also giving operators a much clearer idea of what kind of information they should be seeking from assets to help fill in the terrorism picture.

For most of the CIA’s history, there has been a wall between the operations directorate and the agency’s analytic arm, with case officers from the former running spies and directing covert operations and analysts, sitting in another side of the building, interpreting whatever secrets or other data are fed into the Agency from abroad.  It was the latter’s responsibility to provide the “finished” intelligence product—be it notes, daily briefs, or longer-term estimates—to the president and other senior officials.

Although every bureaucratic arrangement will have its virtues and its problems, this traditional arrangement of dividing the “do-ers” from the “thinkers” had a broad tendency to create a less thoughtful approach to operations and analytic products that might be interesting but not especially relevant to the day-to-day decision-making needs of policymakers.

Of course, there are always exceptions to this pattern. Some of the best analysis of a given problem or country came via a CIA operations officer working abroad, while on occasion an analyst might provide innovative plan for how best to tackle a particular security problem.  But, in general, this was not the way the Agency operated and the two distinct, internal bureaucratic cultures became more the norm than not.

The NCTC, established as part of the package of intelligence reforms put in place in the wake of the attacks on 9/11, was not in fact the first entity to bring down the wall between operators and analysts. In the mid-1980s, when Middle East terrorism was already taking its toll on Americans, the CIA, under then Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, established the first CTC.  As the center’s first head, Duane Clarridge, has written, what was proposed “was nothing less than a revolution within the CIA.  The CTC was absolutely without precedent—the Agency had never organized across directorate lines for anything before,” with each directorate being “a sacred fiefdom unto itself.”

But the fact the Agency had already created a centralized counterterrorism center before 9/11 raises the question of what difference did it make when the attacks on New York and the Pentagon went undetected?

In the case of the CIA’s counterterrorism effort against Al Qaeda prior to 9/11, two major obstacles prevented that effort from being as effective as it could have been. The first was the existing wall between the various intelligence agencies of the U.S. government, who were reluctant to share information and often failed to do so out of a concern that the politically delicate line between foreign and domestic intelligence would be traversed.  In theory, those problems have now been fixed.

The second problem was simply one of political will. In the late 90s, at times, the difficulty was not a lack of operationally relevant intelligence.  Instead, the Clinton White House lacked the will to authorize strikes against Al Qaeda and snatch or kill its leaders when it had them in its sights.

As one former military head of the Special Operations Command, General Pete Schoomaker, pointedly remarked about his command’s exasperations, we were “never given the mission. It was very, very frustrating. It was like having a brand-new Ferrari in the garage, and nobody wants to race it because you might dent the fender.”

In short, there is always a limit to what organizational changes can be expected to accomplish. At the end of the day, even the best intelligence can’t overcome a reluctant president.