Fixing Intelligence

RealClear Politics includes several op-eds related to the 9/11 Commission report in today’s clippings. The common thread is skepticism over the key recommendation of a Director of National Intelligence and, indeed, over the notion that changing the organizational chart will be of much help.

Ralph Peters argues that bureacratic reorganization will have little impact on our intelligence system unless it leads to a radical change in the Cold War mindset and the bureaucratic culture. The biggest obstacle he sees is a fascination with expensive technology at the expense of operators and analysts.

Individual analysts predicted 9/11-type events. Decision-makers ignored them, trusting technology. Our solution? Invest in more technology.

Bureaucracies hate risk — and the human factor is inherently riskier than a print-out (even if the print-out is utterly worthless). As an intelligence officer for two decades, I encountered the same obstacles again and again: High-level managers worried less about being powerfully right than they did about being demonstrably wrong — a fatal difference. Politically risky analysis might make it out of the armed service staffs — which deal in matters of life and death — but rarely made it through the civilian gatekeepers.

An interesting argument, even if it conflates two only tangentially related issues. A CYA/zero defects mentality can exist regardless of overreliance on technology.

Our intelligence community has thousands of solidly competent staffers — and hundreds of brilliant men and women qualified to play in the intelligence Super Bowl. But managerial caution and careerism guarantees that their genius is always tempered, that our intelligence system remains far less than the sum of its very expensive parts.

Great intelligence work isn’t about embracing every lunatic theory. But it is about having the courage to accept that not all innovative thought is lunatic. Top-of-the-game intelligence work requires risk-taking, whether on the analytical end or in the field (where agents forbidden to get their hands dirty will rarely get their hands on anything useful).

We have the talent, if not enough of it. What we lack is a 21st-century vision. And guts. And the common sense to recognize that the world will not conform to our prissy rules. If we are not willing to fight miniature wars in the shadows, we will fight great and painful wars in the light of day. If our thinking is timid, that of our enemies is bold. And if we value bureaucracy above excellence, we will have to endure complaints of “intelligence failure” for many years to come.

Former CIA officer Jack Devine and Stanley S. Arkin, a New York attorney, argue in the Miami Herald that a Director of National Intelligence would be another mere coordinating bureaucrat and that the British MI-5 model is unsuited for the American terrorist problem, which is almost exclusively based abroad. Instead, they offer several recommendations.

̢ۢ A true CIA should bring under a single leadership the systems, budgets and analytical and operational firepower of our existing intelligence agencies.

̢ۢ The barriers between collectors and analysts of intelligence information must be eliminated to allow synthesis of information from its point of collection through the analysis process and on into the hands of policymakers.

̢ۢ The steps underway to create interdisciplinary centers of intelligence and analysis should be broadened to include virtually every area of intelligence, not just terrorism.

They also discuss several changes that have already taken place in response to 9/11 that they believe have gone a long way to alleviating some significant problems.

Robert Reich, a brilliant economist who, so far as I know has no special insights into intelligence or foreign policy, weighs in with an LAT piece called “Better Spies Won’t Add Up to Better Foreign Policy.”

By all means, let’s have better intelligence. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that better intelligence is a substitute for better policy. This is especially true when the threat comes in the form of terrorism.

Terrorism is a tactic. It is not itself our enemy. There is no finite number of terrorists in the world. At any given time, their number depends on how many people are driven by anger and hate to join their ranks. Hence, “smoking out,” imprisoning or killing terrorists, based on information supplied by our intelligence agencies, cannot be the prime means of preventing future terrorist attacks against us. It is more important to deal with the anger and hate. This means, among other things, restarting the Middle East peace process rather than, as President Bush has done, run away from it. It requires shoring up the economies of the Middle East, now suffering from dwindling direct investment from abroad because of the violence and uncertainty in the region. And it means strengthening the legitimacy of moderate Muslim leaders, instead of encouraging extremism — as the current administration’s policies have undoubtedly done.

There’s quite a bit more like that in the piece. I would note that the Clinton Administration pursued Reich’s strategy, with no more success against the jihadists. While our policies may have influence at the margins, the clash of the modern world and Wahhabi radicals is bigger than administration policies.

Rep. Christopher Cox, chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, has a piece in today’s WSJ criticizing the 9/11 Commission for its muted reaction to the Sandy Berger scandal–including a failure to notify Congress of the incident–and for taking so long to get its report to Congress in time for action to take place this year. Regardless, he thinks many of the recommended reforms are “inevitable.”

The Commission report is not a lone voice but only the latest authoritative call for an intelligence overhaul. Several previous commissions and task forces, including the Bremmer, Hart-Rudman, and Gilmore commissions, recommended substantial reforms that went unheeded during the Clinton years. The Joint Inquiry of the House and Senate intelligence committees produced a highly critical report on pre-9/11 intelligence last year that got more, but not enough, attention. Far-sighted recommendations have yet to be implemented–in part because both the Executive and Congress have found them too hard to do. *** [T]here is a common thread in all of the critical reviews of our nation’s intelligence, and in the wake of today’s Commission report we ignore it at our peril. It is the lack of connectivity, interoperability, and information sharing across the agencies, especially between intelligence and law enforcement.


As the Commission report documents better than any effort to date, neither the president nor our country’s dedicated intelligence professionals have been well served by the current structure of our intelligence community. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence earlier this month issued a scathing report on the performance of our intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, prior to the invasion of Iraq. Reliable clandestine sources and fresh information on Iraqi WMD were virtually nonexistent. Time-tested checks and balances were ignored. The lack of analytic rigor was pervasive. And, once again, coordination and collaboration across agencies was not up to the standard the president had set. At a minimum, it appears that existing structures and cultures set up good people to fail.

A few of the 9/11 Commission’s proposals for reform in this area, however, miss the mark. The two principal recommendations–a mega national counterterrorism center, and an all-powerful intelligence czar–have not only been considered for decades, but seem especially unsuited to the goal of reducing bureaucracy. Increasing the authority of the Director of Central Intelligence, another alternative currently under consideration, could similarly achieve the desired budgetary and programmatic integration without adding another layer of management and interposing a new official between the president and the information collectors and analysts.

To get this job done right, Congress will need thoughtful reflection and quality time, not breast-beating and a rush to action. And the president must be allowed to lead the transformation of the intelligence community, not least because Congress will first have to get its own house in order if it is to provide the effective oversight that will be essential to success in any reorganized future. As Lee Hamilton put it to our House Leadership yesterday, our Congressional oversight of intelligence is the best in the world–but it is not as good as it needs to be. The 9/11 Commission report recommends a tight bicameral oversight committee that will integrate the review of both foreign and domestic intelligence. Whatever the disposition of this specific proposal, it will stimulate a healthy debate among members of Congress that will help us change the status quo and improve oversight.

The Commission also recommends the establishment of permanent House and Senate authorizing committees for the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland jurisdiction in both chambers, the Commission observes, is now spread across multiple committees and subcommittees, needlessly diffusing authority and responsibility. In making its recommendation for reform, the Commission is endorsing Speaker Hastert’s decision in early 2003 to establish the Select Committee on Homeland Security, which I chair. My experience in attempting to collaborate with nine committees of jurisdiction in order to enact legislation on first responders, cybersecurity, emergency communications interoperability, port, aviation, and rail security, border security, and similar issues has convinced me that without a committee that is principally responsible for homeland security, congressional action will be well-nigh impossible.

Finally, Alan Wirzbicki has a piece in today’s TNR Online arguing that Philip Zelikow should get an enormous amount of credit for steering the Commission’s staff toward a truly fact-based, honest report. Despite the partisan grandstanding that characterized some of the public hearings and the fears of Democrats and Republicans alike when the Commission’s work started, Wirzbicki believes Zelikow’s academic integrity won out over any partisan spin.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.