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.