Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Checking Intelligence Reform

Monday’s Washington Post htmlhad a rather interesting—and timely--column by Jack Devine, a former senior CIA official. As Mr. Devine reminds us, with the latest “reform” of the U.S. intelligence community approaching its fourth anniversary, Congress should take another look at the effort, and determine what progress (if any) has been made.

In the aftermath of 9-11, it was obvious that our intelligence apparatus was in need of serious repairs. But, as the retired CIA officer observes, the foundation for reform had its own flaws. Legislation passed by Congress—the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act in December 2004—was based on hastily-adopted recommendations from by the 9-11 Commission, eagerly embraced by politicians of both parties…

“Unfortunately, it [reform legislation] was too quickly seized upon and endorsed by presidential candidate John Kerry and seconded, apparently without serious reflection, by the Bush administration. The proposed reforms were only briefly debated in Congress and were adopted without any serious public discussion of their merits.

Professionals who had spent their careers in the trenches tackling the complexity of the intelligence business were largely sidelined from the decision process. Regrettably, the commission's report was viewed as sacrosanct, and nobody dared challenge its recommendations, despite the fact that many intelligence professionals believed creation of a director of national intelligence would only lead to additional layers of bureaucracy and lack the teeth to bring all the diverse intelligence entities into line.

Nonetheless, Congress easily passed the measure, which afforded the DNI only limited authority over the 16 agencies in the intelligence community. The legislation simply didn't give the DNI the budgetary muscle needed to lead the intelligence community, and it created a troublesome confusion here and abroad regarding precisely who is in charge.

Today, the DNI has become what intelligence professionals feared it would: an unnecessary bureaucratic contraption with an amazingly large staff. It certainly had to be taken as a lack of confidence in the DNI's viability when its first occupant, John Negroponte, stepped down to become second in command at the State Department.”

The result, as Mr. Devine observes, is a DNI who has marginal control over many of the entities that make up his sprawling community. He believes our restructured intel system has also created problems abroad, as evidenced by a recent trip to Pakistan by the Director of National Intelligence, retired Admiral Mike McConnell, and the CIA Director, General Michael Hayden. The intelligence officials were dispatched to Islamabad to press Pakistani officials for a stronger U.S. presence in Pakistan’s tribal lands, to battle Al Qaida. They left empty-handed.

Devine also believes (not surprisingly) that intelligence reform has had a negative impact on his old employer—the CIA:

The passage of time has not significantly enhanced the power of the DNI, but it has diminished the role of the CIA, our nation's preeminent human intelligence agency -- much to the detriment of our national security. Despite this situation, McConnell has, to his credit, agreed to take on the monumental task of trying to reform the intelligence process in what must by now be largely a thankless task.


The good news is that since 9/11 the intelligence budget has grown significantly, to approximately $43 billion, and there has been a sizable infusion of operational and analytical positions.

But are we getting full bang for the buck? How much has it really improved our intelligence capabilities, and has it helped to overcome the information-sharing obstacles that were so frequently discussed after Sept. 11? An amount on the order of $43 billion ought to buy a great deal of intelligence firepower and operational influence.

Most important, are we anywhere near where we need to be in penetrating the terrorist organizations that threaten us, as well as the nation-states that represent serious national security challenges: Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and an increasingly unstable Pakistan? Enough time has elapsed since Congress legislated these changes in 2004 to merit an evaluation of the new bureaucracy. Has this bureaucratic superstructure enhanced our intelligence capabilities? Does it deserve a passing grade for its efforts?

Moreover, the intelligence shortcomings that surfaced in the run-up to the Iraq war, as well as the misreading of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities, also speak to the value of conducting a fresh and in-depth evaluation of precisely how well the issues of politicization, collection and analysis are being addressed by the intelligence community. This review can be expected to recommend adjustments that surely are needed -- including dismantling the DNI if necessary and reinvigorating an authentic CIA.

Admittedly, the CIA has suffered greatly in recent years primarily because of policy shortfalls and leadership issues. But no one should underestimate the quality of its staff, its foreign ties and its unique capabilities, which are the cornerstone of the intelligence community. These strengths remain the base for building a robust intelligence agency.

And there’s the rub. While the CIA still retains unique capabilities—and the services of many outstanding intelligence professionals—there is little doubt that the agency remains in crisis. Indeed, many of the problems identified by the 9-11 Commission and the Robb Commission can be traced directly to a CIA that was outmoded, inefficient and some would say, incompetent, during the run-up to the terrorist attacks of seven years ago.

Had the “pros” at Langley been doing their job, it might be argued; the nation might have been spared the horrors of 9-11, and provided better insight into such critical issues as Iraq’s WMD program, and the nuclear efforts of Iran and North Korea. More disturbingly, there is scant evidence that the CIA’s performance has improved since 2004. If anything, elements within the agency remain deeply polarized and politicized, conducting a running war with the White House, the Pentagon and rival intelligence organizations.

Writing in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, Michael Rubin explains the problem rather succinctly. Not satisfied with developing intelligence information and providing analysis—two of the CIA’s core missions—agency personnel have repeatedly tried to set U.S. policy, with little regard for the potential consequences. This trend, Rubin notes, was particularly evident in post-war Iraq:

Rather than simply present the biographies of the various Iraqi figures, the CIA sought to be a privileged policy player. Its representative announced that not only would Langley be inviting its own candidates outside the interagency consensus, but the CIA would not be sharing the names or backgrounds of its invitees. Putting aside the ridiculousness of the CIA belief that it could invite delegates anonymously to a public conference, more troubling was the principle. Far from limiting its work to intelligence, the CIA leadership was unabashedly involving itself in major policy initiatives.


Many of the agency's senior analysts are arrogant after years behind their computers, believing they know far better what U.S. policy should be than the policymakers for whom they draft reports. The recourse of the disgruntled, bored, or politicized analyst is the leak--the bread and butter of any national security correspondent. Journalists who fulfill the leakers' objectives win ever more tantalizing scoops; those who maintain professional integrity and question the agenda behind any leak, find their access cut. The result is a situation in which journalists that might otherwise double-check sources, take a single intelligence analyst at his word, even if he is using them to fight a policy battle.

More recently, CIA efforts at setting policy were evident in the controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program. While “officially” a product of the 16 organizations that make up the nation’s intel community, the estimate was based heavily on analysis provided by the CIA. The report’s key judgment--that Iran had “halted” its nuclear program for more than three years, beginning in 2003—not only reversed previous not only reversed previous assessments, it also undercut the case for potential military action against Tehran.

Since then, senior intel officials have been backing away from the controversial NIE. In his testimony before Congress earlier this month, DNI McConnell acknowledged that Iran is still pursuing uranium enrichment, which he described as “the most difficult challenge in nuclear production.” He also admitted that, due to “intelligence gaps,” the U.S. could not be sure if Iran also suspended covert nuclear activities. In other words, Admiral McConnell provided a pair of stunning caveats to the supposedly-authoritative NIE.

Four years into the latest intel reform effort, the audit suggested by Mr. Devine has clear merit, and should be pursued by Congress and the next administration. But, his suggested return to the “old” intelligence system, with the CIA in the lead, is simply ridiculous. The intelligence community of the 1990s, led by the DCI, set the stage for the twin debacles of 9-11 and assessments of Iraq’s WMD program. And, with no evidence of change in the organizational “culture” at Langley, the notion of turning back the clock is hardly a plan for reform--or better intelligence. Rather, it’s a recipe for the continued politicization of intelligence, and more flawed analysis on critical national security issues.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Much appreciate your blog. While I don't have time to follow it steadily you're on an RSS feed. This post in particular will be referenced in my weekly news summary - it's very good.
As it happens the symptoms you're reporting are ones some of us diagnosed as natural given the circumstances - and a natural outcome of political processes (you might be interested in Mancur Olsen's great work "Power and Prosperity" and it's predecessor "Rise and Decline of Nations" which provide an excellent diagnostic framework. One which should also be applicable to intel work IMHO).
Given that these bad results were natural outcomes of institutional breakdowns what needs to be done ? And how do we reform the political environment ala Olsen ? Food for thought ?