CIA shifts focus from terrorism to 'hard targets' such as Russia and Iran

CIA Director Gina Haspel is reorienting the nation's top intelligence agency, shifting its emphasis from counterterrorism to combating nation-state rivals such as Russia and Iran.

Increasing investment into "hard targets" is the top priority under her watch, Haspel told Auburn University's national security forum last week.

"Our Russia and Iran investment has been strengthened after years of falling behind our justifiably heavy emphasis on counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11," Haspel said in her speech. "Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda remain squarely in our sights, but we’re honing our focus and resources on nation-state rivals."

Prior to concentrating on the threat from global terrorism after al Qaeda's attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA spent decades focusing on the Soviet Union and nation-state adversaries. It's returning to that mindset in an effort to counter Iran and Russia. The CIA's shift follows a broader national reorientationoutlinedin the Trump administration's 2017 national security strategy.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle East specialist at the CIA's directorate of operations, told theWashington Examinerthat Haspel's remarks may be more indicative of a desire to draw bipartisan support from Congress than of an actual reallocation of resources on the ground.

"They have reached maximum saturation with counterterrorism; they surely have too many resources devoted to the target," said Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "It makes perfect sense to swing back toward traditional hard targets even though the actual manpower, especially on the DO [directorate of operations] side, that can, certainly should, be devoted to these targets is limited."

Gerecht said the CIA should be viewed like any other government bureaucracy, meaning anything that guarantees bipartisan congressional support and growth will have resources allocated to it. The intelligence community's budget hasgrown steadilysince 2015, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern about Russian and Iranian activities abroad and at home.

To address rising nation-state threats, Haspel wants to make the CIA more operational. This includes putting not only more case officers on the ground, but analysts and technical experts as well.

"It all comes down to this: If you have a bigger footprint overseas, you can get more done where it really counts," said Haspel, herself a former case officer. She made seven field tours spanning the globe in her 34-year career.

The CIA has added to its ranks in an effort to create that footprint, according to Haspel, who said the agency just saw its best recruiting year in a decade. Foreign-language training has been a particular emphasis in the hiring process, though Haspel said the CIA has also been "aggressively" recruiting data scientists and experts in artificial intelligence.

Haspel's talk was her second public appearance since becoming the CIA's first female director nearly a year ago. She spent most of her career outside the public eye but continues to be the subject of controversy due to her role overseeing a CIA black site in Thailand where prisoners underwent what the George W. Bush administration referred to as "enhanced interrogation techniques," including waterboarding. A heckler in the crowd pointed to this period in interrupting her opening remarks.

Internally, CIA personnel have welcomed having one of their own leading the agency. Her efforts to improve language skills and other intelligence fundamentals have boosted staff morale at the spy agency.

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