President Barack Obama should pause before choosing a successor to CIA Director David H. Petraeus and rethink the role of the nation's primary intelligence agency. Its main focus for the past decade has been fighting terrorists and insurgents.
The first question to ask: Has the CIA become too much of a paramilitary organization? The second: Should this be the time to put the agency's main emphasis on being the premier producer and analyst of intelligence for policymakers, using both open and clandestine sources?
That doesn't mean losing its counterterrorism role. Terrorists remain a threat, but the rest of the world is changing so fast that the president and policymakers down the line need the best information available.
More than 20 years ago, Richard M. Helms, the legendary CIA director, told me that one of the biggest mistakes the agency made during his tenure was to run the "secret war" in Laos in the late 1960s. "You can't keep a war secret, and therefore a clandestine intelligence service should not be running it," he said. "It also diverts you from doing our main job, analysis."
Helms would have shuddered reading last month's Washington Post story that Petraeus was seeking to increase CIA drone activities at a time when policymakers needed to know more about the political turmoil in the Middle East and the new leaders there and in China, India, Africa and Latin America.
Helms came out of the analytic side of the agency. Although he ran the clandestine service as deputy director for operations from 1962 to 1965, he was sent to that post after the Bay of Pigs episode with the aim of directing the CIA away from such semi-covert military operations and more toward espionage.
As CIA director from 1966 to 1973, his credo was: "Focus on the core missions: collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence," according to an appreciation written by one of his top assistants, David S. Robarge. The piece was published 10 years ago, after Helms's death. "Helms believed that the CIA is best at acquiring secrets and telling policymakers what they mean, but that covert action in peacetime can cause the Agency no end of trouble," he wrote.
In recent years, new CIA case officers were quickly sent off to war zones. A former top CIA officer told me that the agency has looked more like the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II wartime intelligence agency, than the CIA, which replaced it in 1947.
An emphasis on finding the bad guys who are Taliban or al-Qaida or planters of roadside bombs has created a generation of analysts who "may see ordinary intelligence gathering and assessment work as just ... ordinary," said one senior official.
There is a more subtle change, too. Sixty percent of CIA officers have arrived since Sept. 11, 2001, and 30 percent since just five years ago. This relatively young workforce has known strong, respected leadership under Michael Hayden, Leon E. Panetta and Petraeus, strong funding, and public respect from recent overseas successes. A limited number of current agency officials experienced the harsh criticism and structural changes after 9/11 and the controversies over Iraq and weapons of mass destruction and over enhanced interrogation and torture.
"An impression within the workforce that they can do no wrong ... inevitably leads to problems down the road," a former senior official said. "Lessons from negative experiences in the past must be factored into the training and culture of the current generation."
This is a difficult time to bring in an outsider, even one with learning capabilities equal to Petraeus's. "We don't have time to teach someone what we're now doing so he or she can get us back to what Helms and others said ought to be what we mainly do," said one veteran agency official.
Michael Morell, 54, the deputy CIA director, is serving as acting director. He's the logical choice. His 32-year CIA career has primarily been on the analytic side. But over the past decade his senior positions have put him at the center of the action. He was executive assistant to Tenet, briefer to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and No. 2 to Panetta and Petraeus.
Appointing Morell to carry out a recalibration of CIA activities would deliver a steadying message to agency personnel and the entire intelligence community.
Walter Pincus writes for The Washington Post.