Opinion

opinion | Robert Caruso

Spy. Assassinate. Protect.

To stay ahead of ruthless enemies, the US needs an agency that doesn’t play nice

Boris Séméniako for the boston globe

Once again the United States finds itself embroiled in a debate over whether or not to “go to war.” It’s a choice the country shouldn’t have to make, and it wouldn’t with a bigger, more lethal clandestine service like France or Israel has.

While today’s enemies are virtually undetectable until they strike, history offers some lessons on how to fight a resourceful, nameless foe that effortlessly weaves themselves into the fabric of everyday life.

From the Revolutionary War to the Eisenhower administration, Americans successfully executed covert and clandestine actions around the world by empowering select individuals to secure the nation. From its creation, the Central Intelligence Agency has struggled to balance its charter and mandate with risk adversity. The art of collecting human source intelligence has been lost in the modern era, as the United States has turned to the relative comfort of relying exclusively on global partners and technology.

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In remarks offered right here in Massachusetts, the CIA’s own deputy director once observed dryly, “People in the 1950s and early 1960s concluded that the United States was facing a ruthless and implacable enemy. Our only hope of survival was to match their dedication with our dedication and their ruthlessness with our ruthlessness.” That ruthlessness is sorely needed again.

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To be sure, this directorate of yesteryear did not operate with the threat of leaks that exists with today’s heightened technological footprint. Indeed, the emphasis on drones and transparency has created more problems than it has solved. It’s time to go back to doing things the old way.

It is time for a more powerful clandestine service, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel. As we saw with the French operation in Mali in 2012 and as Israel has used units of Mossad, small, nimble teams can tackle insurgencies with the same tenacity shown by America’s adversaries today — a tenacity unmatched even by Al Qaeda, it should be noted — and can be extremely effective.

The first step is combining existing intelligence agencies — the National Clandestine Service, Defense Intelligence Agency, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, and the Joint Special Operations Command — into one entity. Its director should have an office in the West Wing and report directly to the national security adviser. An obvious candidate to lead such a group would be Army Lieutenant General Raymond Thomas III, who previously served as an associate director at the CIA and currently commands JSOC.

But whoever took the lead should be confirmed to a 10-year term by the US Senate. A career CIA officer as his deputy could be a valued partner.

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JSOC is infamous for its role in killing Osama bin Laden, an operation the CIA made possible. So why not combine the two? “The CIA doesn’t have the size or the authority to do some of the things we can do,” a source once told the Washington Post’s Dana Priest, when queried about the JSOC’s existing authorities.

Modern-day presidents see targeted killings — or, less delicately, assassination — as an option of last resort. Leveraged properly, however, it shouldn’t be dismissed as an alternative to conventional military action. Under this plan, all targeted killings would be concentrated in one place, including drone strikes.

While there is no need to recreate the network of black sites established after 9/11, it will be necessary to capture and detain America’s enemies and do so intelligently. The FBI should take the lead in these operations.

Concurrently, the CIA should capitalize on the political advantages it enjoys under John Brennan’s directorship and absorb all other existing US intelligence agencies, putting all intelligence analysis across the federal government under the CIA’s exclusive purview. (The National Security Agency, which is not considered an intelligence agency by the Pentagon, would remain untouched.)

Because the new service would be a combination of existing ones, there would be no need for separate budgetary authority from Congress. It could tap into billions of dollars of pooled operational funds. We’ve already seen this example with the Special Collection Service, a joint operation between the CIA and National Security Agency, and the special operations division of the Justice Department.

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It’s also time to do away with the State Department cover system and the geographic station model. Modern adversaries like Russia and Iran aren’t restrained by borders, and neither should our espionage.

Under this plan, with a CIA more than twice its current size and focused purely on the task of analyzing threats locally, the newly-formed clandestine service would act globally, warning about and confronting threats with swift and direct action. It’s an agency that can be created through executive order — the president controls both the armed forces as commander-in-chief and the CIA as its chief executive.

To withdraw from the world stage now, as Senator Rand Paul and others suggest, is a path fraught with danger. With our present reticence, we have ceded too much ground already. Conflation of the words “intervention” and “invasion” has stymied debate for too long. America’s ability to shape events is essential to global order, but there is no reason we need to do that shaping under public scrutiny.

Congress should always provide oversight, if only to know what they are funding. But given the nature of future adversaries, a future where the president must seek an authorization of war as we know it today is difficult — if not impossible — to fathom. It’s necessary, then, instead to build a clandestine service for the future. “They are everywhere, yet they are nowhere,” David Galula, the intellectual godfather of counterinsurgency, famously observed. This has never been more true, and American eyes and ears need to be everywhere, too.

Robert Caruso served in the office of the secretary of defense, the US Navy, and the state department.