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Retired CIA officer: Fix the Agency

By Charles S. Faddis, Special to CNN
  • We owe it to 7 fallen CIA agents to examine the state of the CIA, says Charles Faddis
  • A retired CIA officer, Faddis says the agency is hobbled by bureaucracy
  • He says the CIA's leaders lack the experience to run counter-terror operations
  • CIA needs stronger training, better leadership and higher standards, he says

Editor's note: Charles S. Faddis is a retired CIA operations officer and the former head of the CIA's unit focused on fighting terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction. The author of a recently published book about the CIA, "Beyond Repair," Faddis is also president of Orion Strategic Services, a Maryland-based consulting firm.

(CNN) -- The nation lost seven valuable intelligence officers in the attack in Khost on December 30, 2009. Those of us "in the business" lost good friends and longtime colleagues.

There are a lot of people in Washington these days claiming to be on the front lines of the war on terror. The men and women who died in Khost really were on those front lines, and, for the majority of them, this was not the first time they had served there.

We owe it to the fallen to remember the sacrifices they made. We owe it to them to pause to consider the pain and anguish their families are experiencing right now. We also owe it to them to ensure that we fully understand how this attack could have been allowed to happen and to do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we made a number of major changes to the intelligence community. Some of these were beneficial. Some of them, I would submit, simply added more process to an already overly stiff and bureaucratic structure.

All of them were directed at addressing the question of why we had not successfully "connected the dots" in advance of the attacks. None of them addressed the more fundamental question of why we had collected so little information and knew so little about the plans and intentions of al Qaeda.

We have been "at war" for eight years now. In all that time, we have done nothing to reform or restructure perhaps the single most important organization in that war, the Central Intelligence Agency. This organization, which more than any other must bear the responsibility for somehow having missed al Qaeda's preparations to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, somehow, paradoxically, remains largely as it was on 9/11.

Within it, large numbers of almost unbelievably dedicated and patriotic individuals work feverishly to protect their fellow citizens from harm. When they succeed, however, increasingly they do so despite the organizational structure in which they serve, not because of it.

No intelligence source in a war zone is brought into a base of any kind without being checked and screened. When your principal adversary uses suicide vests as a standard tactic that is doubly true. No source of any kind, no matter where, needs to be brought into a facility and put in proximity to 13 or 14 officers. Even absent a terrorist threat, the potential compromise of officers' identities and base capabilities is enormous and unwarranted.

That these principles were violated in this case does not lessen the dedication of the victims of this attack. Nor does it make any less reprehensible those who organized and directed this operation against us. It does, however, tell us that there was a major breakdown in tradecraft and security and compel us to ask why.

The truth is that the Central Intelligence Agency is an organization suffering from a host of significant ailments. It has calcified from the risk-taking organization it was in its youth into a rigid bureaucracy in which more emphasis is placed on process than it is on mission accomplishment.

Its most senior officers have virtually no experience in combating the types of targets against which the organization is currently directed. Increasingly, it is dominated at all levels, not by seasoned operators with years of service abroad, but by individuals who have served the bulk of their careers at headquarters.

Counterterrorist operations are all too often limited to the conduct of meetings with friendly liaison services, who actually run the sources and collect the information. Operations officers who have really run terrorist sources on the street and operated outside the wire in dangerous areas are in short supply.

Frequently, to fill posts abroad and to maintain a mandated level of staffing, individuals are being sent abroad to frontline posts who have no significant operational experience and may not even be fully trained to function as ops officers. Those that have been trained are likely brand new and without any real world experience.

In the reality of operations in the Pakistan-Afghan theater, this is a prescription for disaster.

None of this is news to anyone "on the inside." None of this has somehow escaped the attention of the top levels of CIA management. This situation did not develop overnight; it has been years in the making. Nonetheless, these deficiencies remain uncorrected. Out in the war zones, the rank and file continue to struggle to accomplish the mission handicapped by the limitations of an organization in need of immediate reform.

What is required is an organization with significantly higher standards, stronger leadership and much more rigorous training. What we need is an outfit focused on mission accomplishment and built around operators not bureaucrats.

It needs to be an entity purpose-built for the task at hand, to grapple with dangerous, violent enemies and to defeat them. To make that happen is going to require the involvement of both the White House and the Congress. It will not be easy, and it will not be quick, but, it must be done. We owe it to the fallen.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charles S. Faddis.