Subordinating Intelligence

January 22, 2020
Subordinating Intelligence
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File
Subordinating Intelligence
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File
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Subordinating Intelligence: The DOD/CIA Post-Cold War Relationship. David Oakley. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019.

In Subordinating Intelligence: The DOD/CIA Post-Cold War Relationship, David Oakley provides an insightful and detailed account of the workings of the intelligence community in the post-Cold War era. His account centers on the evolving relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense, a relationship that has increasingly placed the Agency in a subordinate position to the Department of Defense.

Oakley finds this position of subordination troubling for its potential to undermine the ability of the Central Intelligence Agency to carry out its mission of providing policy makers with intelligence on threats to U.S. national security. This danger operates at two levels. First, at the analytic level, in place of long term geo-political strategic analysis the Central Intelligence Agency is expected to provide short term strategic warning and crisis management intelligence for the military. Second, at the operational level, pressures have risen to direct human intelligence collection efforts to support military undertakings. Human intelligence programs require a great deal of time and effort to set up and become functional. Prioritizing ongoing or potential military conflict situations over other forms of challenges to national security risks creating blind spots in the intelligence available to policy makers. An additional complicating factor in the subordination of intelligence to military operations is what many commentators see as the insatiable appetite of the military for intelligence that undermines that ability to establish a stable middle ground between intelligence for policy makers and intelligence for military commanders.

In charting the subordination of the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense, Subordinating Intelligence brings to the forefront several commonly held images of intelligence. The first involves the nature of the intelligence community. The concept of a community suggests the existence of a collection of individuals and organizations that share common goals and possess a common outlook on events. In these terms, the U.S. intelligence community is only a community in the loosest sense. More accurately, it is a federation of units and officials existing with varying degrees of institutional autonomy in their contribution to the intelligence function that both work together and challenge each other. In this regard, it is interesting to read how often testimony and official studies cited by Oakley identify the Central Intelligence Agency’s pursuit of intelligence in terms of “organizational interests” rather than in service of policy makers and how this phrase is all but absent in discussions of the military’s approach to intelligence.

Second is the image of intelligence, particularly human intelligence. It is assumed that intelligence is a faucet that can be turned on and off with no detriment to national security. This assumption is underpinned by three other beliefs: everything is knowable in advance, collecting and analyzing intelligence is a cost-free process, and that there are no trade-offs in pursuing certain information over others. Viewed in this manner, intelligence becomes a scapegoat for policy failures; low-hanging fruit that can be seized upon to deflect criticism of failure or inefficiencies.

Oakley also points out that not all elements of increased Central Intelligence Agency-Department of Defense collaboration are misguided or constitute imposed subordination of the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense. Budgetary cuts that affected all national security agencies after the end of the Cold War were a prime motivating force. Others were temporary fixes to a problem or issue specific collaborative efforts rather than permanent realignments. Among those cited by Oakley are collaboration during the Vietnam War, the Balkan Task Force, the U.S. military presence in Somalia, and Afghanistan. Still other new arrangements were negotiated into existence under amicable conditions. Here, Oakley cites the collaborative undertakings of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, Director of Central Intelligence Michael Hayden, and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper that followed Rumsfeld’s departure.

Robert Gates, Michael McConnell, Michael Hayden, and James Clapper (Wikimedia)

Oakley correctly notes that commentators tend to treat the subordination of the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense as a natural result of the changing character of world politics and military challenges confronting the United States. The most significant of these are the increased prominence of low intensity conflict and violent domestic conflicts in foreign nations. His accounting of this subordination documents that a far more complex set of factors are at work here. Oakley identifies a series of forces that have led to the subordination of the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense at multiple levels of analysis.

At the highest level is the militarization of American foreign policy often associated with the American response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the subsequent Global War on Terrorism, and the growing role that low intensity conflicts play in American foreign policy. As Oakley demonstrates, movement in this direction began well before then with the Gulf War and President Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive-35, which made supporting military operations the top priority of the intelligence community, as significant markers on the pathway to subordination.

Commissions established to assess military operations and better prepare for future operations constitute a second layer of causation. For example, The Long Commission established to review the lead up to the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut concluded that the large amount of intelligence available to military commanders in Lebanon was of little value and called for better human intelligence to support military planning and operations. President Bush’s 1991 National Security Review asserted that policy requirements and not organizational interests should drive intelligence. One set of policy issues that Bush—who was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency before becoming vice president and then president—wanted to focus on was intelligence support of the military.

Congress also contributed significantly to the subordination trend in both committee hearings and legislation. On the first point, Oakley notes how the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was highly critical of the Central Intelligence Agency’s support for the military in both Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield, asserting that enduring problems prevented the Central Intelligence Agency from being responsive to military requests. The most significant piece of legislation that contributed to the subordination was the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which strengthened the position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combat commanders at the expense of the service departments. While the Goldwater-Nichols reorganization did not directly affect the intelligence community it did create structural changes within the military making increased interactions with the intelligence community both possible and its subordination to the military inevitable. Members of Congress came to see intelligence support for the military as a key missing element of the changes mandated by the Goldwater-Nichols Act and soon turned their attention to what Oakley refers to as “the civilian side of the coin.”[1]

Not surprisingly, individual policy makers also played a key role. In generic terms, the problem identified by Oakley is the lack of policy maker consensus on the purpose of intelligence. At a deeper level, specific individuals also made a difference in how they approached the Central Intelligence Agency-Department of Defense relationship. The most prominent policy maker in this regard was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom Oakley identifies as having sought to gain greater control over the Department of Defense intelligence bureaucracy as early as the Ford administration. Rumsfeld also viewed the Central Intelligence Agency as a competitor, resenting that Agency officers were the “first boots on the ground” in Afghanistan after 9/11, and more generally not wanting the Department of Defense to depend on any other organization to conduct military operations.[2] To that end, Rumsfeld advocated the creation of an Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Strategic Support Branch for conducting covert operations. Less successful was an effort by his aide Stephen Cambone to remove the undertaking of all covert action from the Central Intelligence Agency’s jurisdiction.

Donald H. Rumsfeld and Dr. Stephen Cambone, Jan. 26, 2001 (Robert D. Ward/DoD Photo)

The assertion that the Central Intelligence Agency, and intelligence more broadly, is becoming increasingly subordinated to the needs of the military is well established by the historical overview presented in Subordinating Intelligence. So too is the perception this subordination hindered the Central Intelligence Agency’s ability to carry out its mission. These observations are repeatedly found in the documents discussed by Oakley and comments made by policy makers. The logic of this conclusion is compelling. What is now needed is assembling concrete evidence that it is so. This is no easy task given the secrecy that surrounds intelligence and the reality when information does become public, intelligence failures rather than intelligence success receive the lion’s share of attention. But it must be undertaken if the significance of subordination compared to other variables—personality, time, nature of the intelligence challenge, presence of competing threats—is to be judged and appropriate organizational changes made to remedy the problems. In the absence of such supporting data the subordination of intelligence chronicled by Oakley risks becoming yet another chapter in the ongoing politics of intelligence reorganization. One research strategy around this problem might be to cast it in larger terms, looking beyond the U.S. and the contemporary time period: are there historical and comparative cases where intelligence was subordinated to the military that produced the anticipated negative results?

Oakey’s analysis also suggests a number of other issues in need of study. A second research question, one that could equally daunting, would be to gauge the extent to which the internal organizational culture of the Central Intelligence Agency has been altered by this subordination to Department of Defense. Is it recognized as the new normal? Is it rejected? Another is that of how might this situation be corrected? Is there a simple path away from subordination? What dangers need to be avoided in trying to correct the situation? Answering these questions requires not only an understanding of how they came about through the examination of military failures and the politics of organizational reform, topics Oakley addresses, but bringing in insights from organization theory on the strengths and weaknesses of different organizational structures and how organizations attempt to control their operating environments.

In sum, Oakley presents a detailed critical assessment of an understudied area of intelligence policy. It is a deep dive into the politics of intelligence reorganization that assumes knowledge of the subject and not one for beginners. Reaching a full judgement of the merits of Oakley’s argument requires delving into topics which provide the political context within which the subordination of intelligence took place but which he does not provide a framing conceptual contest. Among these are the broader debate on the purposes of American foreign policy: the key threats it confronts and the strategies used to meet them; the constantly changing dynamics of the trilateral relationship of Congress, the President, and the intelligence community; and bureaucratic politics. Looking to the future one could add to this list the increased level of political activism being exhibited of intelligence officers following the 2016 presidential election and the growth of populism in the United States.

Glenn Hastedt received his Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University and has published widely on American foreign policy and questions of intelligence policy. He currently serves as professor and chair of the Justice Studies Department at James Madison University.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] David Oakley, Subordinating Intelligence: The DOD/CIA Post-Cold War Relationship. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), 153.

[2] David Oakley, Subordinating Intelligence: The DOD/CIA Post-Cold War Relationship. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), 128.

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