How 10 years of war has changed US spies
July 25th, 2012
02:45 PM ET

How 10 years of war has changed US spies

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of articles about national security by participants in the 2012 Aspen Security Forum. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 25-28 in Aspen, Colorado. John McLaughlin was a CIA officer for 32 years and served as deputy director and acting director from 2000-2004. He currently teaches at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

From John McLaughlin, Special for CNN

People often ask me how the CIA and American intelligence generally have changed in the 11 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In fact, the changes are profound, and they have been transformative.

Perhaps the most important thing to realize about American intelligence officers in 2012 is that this is the first generation since Vietnam to have been “socialized” - that is hired, trained, and initiated - in wartime. And to a greater degree than even the Vietnam generation, their experience approximates that of their World War II forbears in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - the bold and innovative organization to which most American intelligence officers trace their professional roots. To be sure, the Vietnam generation also saw more than a decade of war, but it was more confined geographically and culturally and occurred in the bipolar world of the Cold War, when the boundaries and consequences of conflict were clearer than in today’s kaleidoscopic world.

The intelligence community you see today also reflects the rapid growth and changed demographics that came in the wake of 9/11. In the years prior to those attacks, the community had been downsized by more than 20% as the nation sought a “peace dividend” following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The rapid intelligence buildup as the country sought to retaliate for 9/11 and prevent future attacks has yielded one of the youngest intelligence workforces in history; the combination of retirements from the aging workforce of the 1990s and the new hiring of the last decade means that in most agencies 50 percent or more of the population has been on board only since 9/11. It’s fair to say, however, that the intensity of their experience, especially the frequent tours in war zones, has yielded a population more skilled and mature than years on the job typically measure.

Along with a growth in the workforce came an increase in what intelligence officers, particularly at the CIA, were authorized and directed to do. Robust and aggressive new operational guidelines in areas such as capture and detention have exposed officers to both danger and controversy that their predecessors seldom experienced. Paralleling this has been an unprecedented level of integration with the U.S. military.

The military, of course, has always had a high-priority claim on intelligence resources, but this decade has deepened the operational relationship between the uniformed military and civilian intelligence in numerous ways. Forged initially in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan as CIA teams worked hand-in-glove with U.S. Special Forces in the weeks after 9/11, the relationship was further refined in Iraq. The result has been more joint operations, more skillful fusion of defense and civilian intelligence, and improved techniques for getting actionable intelligence in real time to operational commanders in the field.

One reflection of this more aggressive operational tempo can be seen in the lobby of CIA headquarters. A star is carved in the marble wall there each time an officer dies in the line of duty. There are currently 103 stars; nearly a quarter of them have been added since 9/11.

Finally, it may surprise some outside observers that this action-oriented decade has also featured an enormous amount of introspection and self-examination in the intelligence community. While successes have been numerous, there have also been failures, notably the miscall on Iraq WMD and the inability to stop the 9/11 plot despite having warned successfully in 2001 that a major attack on unknown targets was imminent. These events triggered a more systematic “lessons learned” process than the community had employed in the past, and this has affected everything from the way analysts test and present their conclusions to the way case officers handle spies.

The results are evident in many arenas, but perhaps most notably in the careful manner in which officers were able to help national decision-makers sort through and assess the largely circumstantial evidence that led to the location and takedown of Osama bin Laden.

In all these ways, the intelligence community before us today is strikingly different than it was at the turn of the century: Younger and more schooled in the ways of war - in some ways more bold, in other ways more careful. As the two major post-9/11 conflicts wind down or enter a different phase, an intelligence “culture” shaped partially by them will have to adapt to new challenges. Because this decade has been mostly about adaptation, one can be optimistic that our intelligence officers will be ready for whatever lies ahead.

Filed under: Aspen Security Forum
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Hasai

    "In the years prior to those attacks, the community had been downsized by more than 20% as the nation sought a “peace dividend” following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union."

    Yup; and so doing, guaranteed the next war. Happens after every major conflict, and yet we never, ever, learn.

    August 18, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  2. Everett Wallace

    I like the older CIA agents and the new hires you can be the point persons for the special ops you are not CIA worthy and you older agents we need to meet and discuss what you have been observing in the united states no need to investigate you will get messed up, we still need to discuss dallas texas.

    August 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  3. joe d

    israeli pigs are the kings of spying....on the U.S.

    August 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • Everett Wallace

      well now is that true and if so how do you know are you kgb.

      August 10, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  4. Partyforever

    Al Qaeda and other groups aren't dead in my opinion. Their networks run deep, very deep. In South Africa we have seen how deep these networks can run. Very very deep. Their organisation structures hide behind good causes. In the 1960s we had all their leaders behind bars. 20 of the top leaders. They came back with a vengeance twenty years later. They now rule us.

    July 26, 2012 at 12:28 am | Reply
    • Victor

      Umm..... There was no al-Qaeda in the 1960's. They were created as an organization under Bin Laden in 1989.

      July 31, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
    • Anchorite

      Wow a post-revolution justification of the most racist regime on Earth by trying to link the ANC to al-Qaeda. Previously you tried to link them to the KGB. But al-Qaeda fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Make up your mind.

      August 11, 2012 at 2:06 am | Reply
  5. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Given that Al-Qaeda is now contained (if not decimated) with most of the top leadership eliminated or behind bars, intelligence agencies in the US (FBI, CIA), UK (MI-6), Europe (Germany's BND), Israel (Mossad), India (RAW) are focused like a laser on homegrown terror threats emanating from their Muslim diaspora.

    Even as the general public are being constantly deceived into believing that the focus on the Muslim Diaspora was misplaced given the very few cases of successful attacks since 9/11, 7/7 (London), 3/11 (Madrid Train Bombings) or 26/11 (Mumbai), intelligence agencies are aware of the scores of attacks successfully thwarted incl. the dirty bomb attack, the Time Square bombing, the Underwear bomber etc. Many of these attacks have been nipped in the bud either through hawk like surveillance on Mosques (knowing fully well that 80% of the Mosques in the US preached some form of religious hatred), maintaining a close watch on Muslim charities and also trapping people with intent to harm our nations.

    Besides these efforts intelligence agencies are also deeply aware of Islamic sympathizers deeply embedded in national news media, leading Think Tanks, reputed Universities and Industry who are all waging a war against America & Europe through a covert disinformation campaign.
    Leading the pack of such misinformers are CNN’s own Mr.Fareed Zakaria who has consistently:

    a) Championed every Muslim cause the world over, incl. covert support for the Iranian nuclear program, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah

    b) Derided American democracy at every opportunity – by misrepresenting the differences that exist in any great democracy, and

    c) Has passionately canvassed for greater Muslim immigration into America & Europe in the GARB of stemming our demographic decline & keeping our factories running.

    Many Americans especially those in the intelligence community are rightly worried about the possibility of Mr.Zakaria adorning the position of the next US. Sec. of State in a 2nd Obama administration as it’s strongly rumored to be.

    Besides a spate of articles on CNN-GPS, Time & the former Newsweek defending Islam and chiding the West, of particular concern is Mr. Zakaria’s astounding statement that “the Danger comes from us (the US & the Zionists) and NOT from them (Al-Qaeda & Islamic radicals) – Ref: Reflections on 9/11 and its Aftermath” CNN-GPS Sept 9th, 2011.

    In the UK the MI-6 is deeply aware of the threat form the Muslim Diaspora (particularly the Pakistani Diaspora) given what one of Pakistan's top diplomats (NOT just another Pakistani Mullah!) said sometime back.
    Pakistan's High Commissioner to the UK Mr.Walid Shamsul Hassan said that "LONDON CAN SEE TERROR ATTACKS FROM THE OVER 1 MILLION PAKISTANI DIASPORA"!

    (Ref: Sunday Times Sept 8th 2008, and a 4 part BBC interview October 10th 2008 – Check it out on You Tube).

    These threats from the Muslim Diaspora whose allegiance remains only to their Muslim Ummah and NOT to the countries of their origin/residence and the Jihadist goals of radical Islamic nations such as Iran and Pakistan and their stockpile of Islamic bombs (self declared in the case of Pakistan), it’s NOT a question of “IF” we will see a dirty bomb/Nuclear attack on one of our cities, but the question is “WHEN”……..

    And, that’s what the FBI. MI-6, BND, RAW & MOSSAD are hard at work to prevent!

    July 25, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Reply
    • 62987m

      the content is very elaborate

      July 26, 2012 at 7:28 am | Reply
      • Victor

        and hoaky...

        July 31, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  6. Marine5484

    I noticed that the C.I.A. is still capable of fomenting phoney revolutions and setting up pseudo-democracies around the world which are no more than U.S. satttlite states such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, etc.

    July 25, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Reply
    • JCB

      Hmmmmmm interesting.....if this is what you TRULY believe...then there is not much to worry these countries

      have not turned out very well in being U.S. allies.....:-)

      July 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Reply
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    July 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply

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