A Senate Intelligence Committee hearing features Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and CIA Director John Brennan.

A Senate Intelligence Committee hearing features Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and CIA Director John Brennan. Susan Walsh/AP

Intel Wars: DIA, CIA and Flynn’s Battle to Consolidate Spying

The Defense Department wants in on the spying game. But will the CIA block their efforts? By Marc Ambinder

While the National Security Agency fights for its secrecy, the Defense Department’s human spying organizations are fighting for their place in the new national security framework.

Sequester pressure on the military intelligence budget, which totals $18.6 billion this year, and hunger from Congress for more oversight of human intelligence are complicating DIA director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s efforts to -- in the lingo that Washington has borrowed from the consulting world -- de-conflict and consolidate.

Flynn’s incipient Defense Clandestine Service, the military-civilian arm of the DIA that conducts espionage, continues to recruit even though congressional committees twice have threatened to reduce its funding, arguing that the Central Intelligence Agency already does the nation’s spying. 

This year’s National Defense Authorization Act conference report instructs DOD to assess whether all their human spying would be better organized by the CIA.

The CIA is quietly pushing the Armed Services committees along, hoping that Flynn’s DCS will be remembered by history as a failed power grab. Publicly, the CIA insists that the post-Afghanistan and Iraq war reorganization of its responsibilities – a de-emphasis on paramilitary operations and a refocusing on stealing secrets and strategic warning – is not threatened by a new Pentagon agency. But it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t be.

The CIA essentially absorbed the Pentagon’s only military-wide spying agency seven years ago when the Defense HUMINT Service was dismantled -- and now, the Pentagon wants it back.  Though the number of new government positions is supposedly static, the relative number of case officers is growing, meaning that the DCS will compete with the CIA for recruits. It will compete with the CIA for missions, too, because the CIA has always provided “the warfighter” with tactical intelligence, even if it hasn’t done a good job.

The CIA does “national” stuff. The Pentagon will do “warfighting” stuff.  The service’s own intelligence arms, which still have human intelligence capacities, will focus on “service-specific requirements.” So, let’s say that the Russians are building a new generation of laser radar systems. The president wants to know more about them.  Who gets the task?  The Air Force might say: “Hey, it’s our guys in the planes who are going to be tracked by the lasers. And maybe missiles, too. So we’ll do it.” The Navy can make a similar argument.  The DIA can say the project will be better supervised by one of its operational centers of gravity, and since several services might be affected by new Russian technology, it should manage the account. But why would the CIA, which already has case officers and analysts monitoring Russian counter-force technology cede the account?

The differences are distinction-less. They’re words. The national security bureaucracy knows this.  Every combatant commander submits hundreds of pages worth of classified intelligence requirements each year. The Director of National Intelligence’s collection managers do the same thing. The National Security Staff sets its own priorities. The intelligence agency heads have their formal orders of battle, too. Everyone gets to submit intelligence priorities these days and there are a dozen databases just dedicated to handling requests for more secrets.

Flynn is not a fan of needless duplication. Under his vision for the DCS, many controlled HUMINT programs within the Defense Department would be dissolved and transferred directly to DIA. In turn, he would allocate the pool of secret-stealers directly to the combatant commanders, who arguably have a better handle on what their warfighters actually need to know than service bureaucrats in Washington.

Flynn’s drive to both consolidate and expand defense HUMINT makes sense on one level. But it threatens the equities of the service chiefs on another. The Air Force ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) Agency Detachment 6 spies on secret aircraft programs in China and Russia. The Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations now does HUMINT alongside its traditional counter-intelligence mission. For Flynn, keeping HUMINT programs within the services doesn’t make sense in a world where every operation is joint and every threat will be met by the a spectrum of responses from the government. Air Force headquarters and centralized intelligence capabilities just don’t align with the way threats manifest themselves. 

So once Flynn gets beyond Congress and the CIA, he’ll find the service chiefs waiting to blow apart his vision. Since turnover for intelligence agency directors, even good ones, is relatively high, it’s hard to see how he’ll succeed.