Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Report

It’s been almost two weeks since a Presidential Commission released its report on the intelligence failures surrounding Iraq’s WMD program. After a predictable surge of media coverage and public interest, the debate about fixing our intelligence community has seemingly faded once again.

I’ve refrained from commenting on the commission’s findings because, unlike most pundits, I actually wanted to read the report first. At just over 600 pages, it’s a little shorter than a Tom Clancy novel, and not as riveting as the 9-11 Commission Report. But the intelligence panel’s assessment is an equally important document, and required reading for anyone concerned about national security, and fixing our intelligence system.

Obviously, time and space don’t permit a full discussion of the entire report. But I will offer a few observations on the general problems facing our intelligence community (as identified by the commission) as well as recommended “fixes.”

The Intelligence Community (IC) is fragmented, loosely managed and poorly coordinated. Talk about an understatement; as the panel observes, our intelligence apparatus is a community in “name only,” and rarely acts with unity of purpose. Creation of the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is a necessary first step toward better management and coordination, but it’s unclear whether the new DNI (Ambassador John Negroponte) has the time—and the skills—needed to unify and coordinate the actvitities of 15 different intelligence agencies.

The Intelligence Community is too slow to change the way it does business. Amen. From personnel recruitment to collection methods, the IC is rigid, inflexible, and often unable to adapt to an ever-changing threat environment. Creating a nimble, responsive IC (is than an oxymoror?) will require a complete cultural change—a veritable Herculean feat (more on that later)

Intelligence Agencies are prone to developing risk-averse cultures that take outside advice badly. The commission makes a strong case that rejecting reform is the one thing our intelligence agencies do best. In fact, the IC has an almost perfect record of resisting internal changes. It’s a system where there are no rewards for innovative analysis and every incentive for supporting the status quo. Adopting this mindset, it becomes relatively easy to see how analysts—and intelligence agencies—were eager to hop on the Iraqi WMD bandwagon.

These problems—and others-- are hardly surprising, given the revelations of the past three years. It doesn’t take Porter Goss to figure out that our intelligence analysis often lacks rigor, our human intelligence (HUMINT) is poor and the various intelligence agencies often fail to share information. But other findings are more surprising, particularly to an American public that believes our intel organizations are sleek and omniscent. But in reality, intel agencies are facing new challenges that threaten collection efforts, and may potentially jeopardize our security. These challenges include:

Decreased Access in Signals Intelligence. The revolution in telecommunications technology—fiber optics, commercially-available encryption systems—have reduced our ability to monitor enemy communications. As the commission notes, the IC lost access to critical Iraqi communications well before the war began, denying access to important information. Other potential adversaries are also taking advantage of advances in telecommunications, resulting in additional intelligence gaps. Regaining our edge in signals intelligence is imperative, and it will require a greater willingness to accept financial costs, political risks and even human casualties.

Declining Utility of Traditional Imagery Intelligence Against Unconventional Weapons Programs. With information on our satellite programs readily available from a variety of sources—including the internet—adversaries have found it easier to defeat overhead imagery systems, denying another source of potential information on WMD efforts. Availability of this information, coupled with enemy efforts at denial and deception (D&D) and dual-use technologies, have created a dilemma for intelligence analysts and policy-makers. As the commissioners observed, “we can get piles of incredibly sharp photos of a adversary’s chemical factories and still not know much about his chemical weapons program. Too often what we can’t see doesn’t tell us what we need to know about nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.”

I’ll address the commission’s report (and it’s findings) in greater detail in future posts. But for now, consider this: the U.S. intelligence community is at the most important cross-roads in its history. With the nation more reliant on intelligence than ever before, the IC must quickly find a way to reform its practices and technology, to avoid future disasters like 9-11 and WMD in Iraq. And, as always, identifying the problems is the easy part. Forging expedient solutions is the hard part, and the devil is truly in the details…

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