Essays by Herb Meyer
The CIA Must Learn to Play Offense
The Wall Street Journal — October 1, 2002
It's obvious that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. reflect, among other things, a failure of our country's intelligence services. Less obvious is how to reform and reorganize our intelligence agencies to help win the war against terrorism.
Many members of Congress are critical of the Central Intelligence Agency for not having recruited more spies. Others blame Congress itself for starving the CIA of adequate funding. While more spies and more money will be helpful, neither will be sufficient. The core of the CIA's failure lies in its very structure and design, and until that is altered, the agency will never be able to pull its weight in the coming fight.
Simply put, the CIA must be changed from a defensive agency into an offensive one.
To understand the difference, consider the CIA's World War II predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Built by a brilliant and tough-minded New York corporate attorney, William J. Donovan, the OSS was a free-wheeling collection of our country's best minds. Donovan took them from Wall Street, the corporate world, academia--wherever they happened to be. They were lawyers, administrators, financiers, economists, writers and scientists. They shared a special kind of brilliance that too often is overlooked in the intelligence business: the ability to spot a pattern with the fewest possible facts. They didn't wait until two and two were sitting on their desks to realize they had four, and they had the ability to articulate their conclusions swiftly and clearly enough to get everyone else moving before it was too late.
Donovan's orders to his OSS teams were simple: Figure out precisely how our enemy works, and wreak havoc. To do this they used not only their brains but their contacts. Not for nothing did people joke that the OSS stood for "Oh-So-Social." Its officers personally knew bankers, business executives and scientists at the highest levels throughout the world--people no regular government employees would ever have met, let alone socialized and done deals with--to whom they could turn for insight, and sometimes a quiet helping hand when they wanted something awkward to happen to someone. It was a hard-driving, hard-charging--and in some cases hard-drinking--crowd.
Hearing OSS veterans describe the office atmosphere, it must have been more like a hospital emergency room than an insurance company. Donovan himself was known as "Wild Bill," and it was not always meant as a compliment.
When the war ended, Congress moved hastily to disband the OSS. Lawmakers considered it too hard to control to tolerate in peacetime. Only when the nation realized it was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union did we create the CIA. But unlike its predecessor, the CIA was designed as a defensive intelligence agency. After all, our national objective was to "not lose" the Cold War--to somehow contain the Soviet Union and keep it from winning. Thus the CIA's mission was to monitor, analyze, report and sometimes launch an operation whose purpose was to stop the Soviets from doing something.
President Reagan changed the U.S. objective from "not losing" the Cold War to winning it. And to help do that he named as director of Central Intelligence William J. Donovan's OSS protégé, yet another New York corporate attorney also named William J.--in this case, Casey. Bill Casey understood that you cannot play offense with an agency built for defense. His solution was not so much to change the CIA, but to build within the CIA an "OSS."
Like his idol Donovan, Casey raided the corporate world, Wall Street, academia and so forth for the kind of people he needed--people who thought fast, could spot a pattern with the fewest possible facts, get their point across to everyone else and hit the enemy hard. They were people with global Rolodexes no CIA official could match. Bill even brought a few of his aging OSS buddies on board, and the contrast between them and everyone else at the agency was a sight to behold. Of course they were visibly older, but they were almost a different species. They knew their way around boardrooms throughout the world, and with help from the powerful people they talked to they made things happen that agency officials had insisted were impossible. They belonged to private clubs no CIA official could afford to join, and all too often had never even heard of. If they had an idea that needed immediate action and the agency was unable to fund it that afternoon, they simply wrote a check from their personal accounts.
It all drove Congress nuts. They called Bill a cowboy--or worse--and they bleated that under his direction the CIA was out of control. They hated the way he testified at their hearings, and insisted he was in contempt of Congress. Technically, this accusation was false; Bill was too smart a lawyer ever actually to be in contempt. But he's been gone for years, so I can safely reveal that in our country's history there have been few people who had more contempt for Congress than Bill Casey. Sitting privately with Bill at a dinner table and listening to him say what he really thought of some members is among the funniest, most memorable, experiences I've ever had.
While Congress bleated, the "OSS" within the CIA swung into action. Working on its own--and often with the invaluable assistance of those first-class career CIA officers who had been waiting years for this kind of aggressive leadership--Casey's team sharpened the analysis, forced the rest of the national-security apparatus to see things before they otherwise would have been visible, and wreaked havoc among our enemies. We smuggled weapons to freedom fighters throughout the world, we smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union itself, and we mined harbors in Nicaragua. We figured out how the Soviets were getting their hands on U.S. technology, and we crushed their network. We grasped the connection between the two Soviet natural gas pipelines into Western Europe and Moscow's looming economic crisis, then provided the insight and information to the State Department and the White House, which moved to block the pipeline project and thus deal Moscow a crippling financial blow. And so on.
By the time Casey collapsed at his desk--literally--in 1986, the Soviet Union was on its knees. Five years later the Soviet state ceased to exist. Of course the CIA didn't win the Cold War any more than the OSS won World War II. But it was an effective part of the struggle for victory because it had become an offensive, rather than a defensive, agency.
During the 1990s the CIA struggled to reinvent itself in the post-Cold War era. It shifted its focus from the Soviet Union to drugs and terrorism. But at the core it slipped back into its default posture, which was playing defense. And rightly so, because the national leadership articulated no objective that required an offense.
President Bush has made clear that in the war against terrorism, the U.S. will be playing offense. That means the CIA itself must change its posture. More precisely, it will need to revisit the Casey approach and build within the CIA an "OSS." Two specific tasks spring immediately to mind:
First, it's obvious that the terrorist networks and the states that support them rely on very sophisticated financial operations to keep going. Well, our financial geniuses are smarter than their financial geniuses. We need a team of the smartest, most well-connected money wizards in our country to figure out how the terrorists' finances work--and then wreak havoc. If we put our very best people to work on this, it won't be long before Osama bin Laden will have trouble paying for his lunch, let alone for complex attacks.
Second, the terrorist networks and the states that support them rely heavily on computers for communication. Again, our computer geniuses--men and women who are not government employees and never would be except in wartime--are better than theirs. We need to put the best possible team together and set it to wrecking the terrorists' ability to communicate, or to communicate undetected.
Setting up another "OSS" within the CIA, or, if you prefer, reorganizing the CIA to play offense, should be easier to do now than it was during the Reagan administration. The poisonous relations between the executive branch and Congress that existed then, and perhaps before Sept. 11, no longer prevail. Yet the administration must be more willing than any of its predecessors to share intelligence with Congress. Members will demand that as the price for allowing the CIA to be transformed into an offensive agency, and it's a price worth paying. At the same time, Congress must realize that overseeing an offensive CIA will be an uncomfortable, sometimes agonizing chore. Members will need to be less prissy and fastidious, less prone to faint every time things get rough or go wrong.
Turning the CIA into an offensive agency won't, by itself, win the war against terrorism. But it will help, and the sooner we get cracking the better.