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CIA Director John Brennan spoke in Washington in March. The agency he leads is trying to reshape its mission.

Carolyn Kaster • Associated Press,

Change doesn't come quickly at the CIA

  • Article by: Mark Mazzetti
  • New York Times
  • April 5, 2014 - 4:39 PM

– In the skies above Yemen, the Pentagon’s armed drones have stopped flying, a result of the ban on U.S. military drone strikes imposed by the government there after a number of botched operations in recent years killed Yemeni civilians. But the CIA’s drone war in Yemen continues.

In Pakistan, the CIA remains in charge of drone operations.

And in Jordan, it is the CIA rather than the Pentagon that is running a program to arm and train Syrian rebels — a concession to the Jordanian government, which will not allow an overt military presence.

Just over a year ago, John O. Brennan, the CIA’s newly nominated director, said at his confirmation hearing that it was time to refocus an agency that had become largely a paramilitary organization after the Sept. 11 attacks toward more traditional roles carrying out espionage, intelligence collection and analysis.

But change has come slowly to the CIA.

Factors add to delays

“Some might want to get the CIA out of the killing business, but that’s not happening anytime soon,” said Michael Sheehan, who until last year was the senior Pentagon official in charge of special operations and is now at U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center.

A number of factors — including bureaucratic turf fights, congressional pressure and the demands of foreign governments — have contributed to this delay. At the same time, Brennan is also facing a reckoning for other aspects of the CIA’s role at the forefront of the secret wars the United States has waged since 2001.

The declassification of a scathing report by the Senate Intelligence Committee about the agency’s detention and interrogation program will once again cast a harsh light on a period of CIA history Brennan has publicly disavowed. The Justice Department has been drawn into a dispute between the agency and the committee, and is looking into a charge by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman, that the agency broke the law by monitoring computers of committee staff working on the report.

Fighting terrorism a priority

Now, Brennan is in charge of a counterterrorism apparatus that has steadily grown in budget, manpower and influence for more than a decade. While officials said that Brennan has pushed for more resources to counter traditional adversaries like Russia and China, as well as newer threats like cyberwarfare, the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, known as the CTC, is a powerful force inside the agency and on Capitol Hill.

“I think that most of the CIA is behind the changes, but the CTC community has grown dramatically since 9/11 and is fighting to keep its turf,” Sheehan said. “And, they’ve been somewhat successful in that regard, especially with the drone programs.”

Influential lawmakers from both parties have fought to protect the CIA’s role in the drone wars and prevent the proposed shift of the bulk of drone operations to the Pentagon.

Both Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have urged Brennan to push back against the White House policy announced last May, citing what they regard as the Pentagon’s poor performance in lethal operations.

Even if the CIA eventually does give up the work of dropping bombs, Brennan insists that its counterterrorism mission will endure.

“Despite rampant rumors that the CIA is getting out of the counterterrorism business, nothing could be further from the truth,” the CIA director said in a speech in March.

The agency’s covert action authorities and relationships with foreign spy services, Brennan said, “will keep the CIA on the front lines of our counterterrorism efforts for many years to come.”

© 2014 Star Tribune