Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Unfinished Business

Today's reading assignment actually appeared in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. But the column (from Gabriel Schoenfeld of Commentary magazine) remains particularly timely and relevant. He reminds us that the intelligence reform efforts that began after 9-11 remain unfinished. Indeed, as Mr. Schoenfeld writes, President Bush may leave the nation's intelligence community mired in the same sort of bureaucratic mediocrity that was evident before the events of eight years ago.

As a case in point, he cites last year's infamous National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program--a document that was flawed and misleading, at best. That should come as no surprise, since the report was supervised by two men--Thomas Fingar and his recently-appointed "analytic integrity deputy" Richard Immerman--with a long history of opposition to the Bush Administration.

Make no mistake; intelligence analysts can--and sometimes should--respectfully disagree with policy-makers and their decisions. But Mr. Immerman, a former Temple University professor, has done more than merely disagree. While at Temple, he took part in "teach-ins" against the Iraq War and in an essay published after assuming his new intelligence post, Immerman accused the Bush Administration of "making every effort to cook the books." Remember: this is the same intelligence official now charged with upholding "analytical standards."

But lingering problems in the intel community go well beyond Messrs Fingar and Immerman. As Schoenfeld points out, a recently-retired intelligence official recently listed her "proudest" accomplishment in an essay in Washington Quarterly. The official, Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, says she used her post to "galvanize change" among intelligence analysts:

"Under her tutelage, they would henceforth be required to "properly source evidence, avoid politicization, acknowledge uncertainty and assumptions, use alternative analysis, explain consistency or deviation, and strive for accuracy."

The imposition of such basic standards, Schoenfeld writes, speaks volumes about the status of our intelligence community. We also wonders about the training of thousands of new employees, who have joined intel organizations over the past seven years. More than half of the nation's intelligence analysts have signed on since 9-11, and according to Ms. Tucker, many have become entrenched in the "take-no-risks" mindset that has long dominated our intelligence agencies.

And that's the dirty little secret of all intelligence reform efforts. Attempts to fix intel problems typically begin with a full head of steam, thanks to some sort of analytical debacle, followed by investigations, recommendations and corresponding budget increases. But, with the passage of time, no one bothers to see if the reform process is actually working.

Small wonder. No self-serving member of Congress wants to admit that his (or her) attempt at intelligence reform has failed--particularly if they have larger political ambitions. The same holds true for the career managers who form the backbone of our intel bureaucracy. As for the generals and senior officials who lead the agencies, their tenure is often too brief to produce meaningful results.

Meanwhile, the intelligence apparatus lurches along, beset by the same problems that have challenged it for years--even decades. That shortage of human intelligence (HUMINT) officers? It's been an issue for more than 30 years.

Quality of analysis? American history is littered with examples of blown intelligence calls, ranging from Pearl Harbor and China's intervention in the Korean War, to the Tet Offensive and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Clearly, poor analysis is not a new problem for the intelligence community.

An inexperienced work force? When I entered the military intelligence business more than 20 years ago, our career field was 300% manned at the lieutenant (O-1/O-2 level), with corresponding shortages of experienced officers in the senior grades. When I retired, the career field was still "bottom heavy," despite various attempts to balance manning and experience levels.

As I've noted in the past, the process of fixing intelligence is more than hiring the right people, getting rid of the political hacks, and throwing more money at the problem. Real intelligence reform means holding leaders accountable, beyond the latest news or election cycle.

That's one area where Mr. Bush and his leadership team have been woefully deficient, joining a long list of administrations that initiated serious intelligence reforms, but never bothered to follow through. And that's one reason the next president may inherit an intel bureaucracy that is as politicized (and mediocre) as the one left for President Bush.

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