Intelligence Reform And False Urgency

Sen. Chuck Hagel has an op-ed in today’s WaPo entitled, “Intelligence Reform And False Urgency.” As the title implies, he’s concerned that there is something of a rush to judgment on the 9/11 Commission reform and a push to “do something” quickly that may overwhelm considered judgment.

We stand at a moment filled with potential for bringing about the responsible intelligence reforms needed to meet the threats of the 21st century. But if we allow the current national consensus for intelligence reform to become a tool in the partisan rancor of presidential politics, we risk doing enormous damage to our intelligence community. We must not allow false urgency dictated by the political calendar to overtake the need for serious reform. This is an enormous undertaking filled with consequences that will last a generation.

There is no debate about the need to reform our 20th century intelligence infrastructure. Yesterday President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry publicly discussed several reform ideas that Congress will consider. But there is much work to be done to bring about the right reforms. Policymakers must not shy away from this responsibility; we must embrace it. The stakes could not be higher. While inaction is unacceptable, serious consequences will come with reform. Policymakers owe it to the American people to understand these consequences before they act.

A mistaken impression has developed that since Sept. 11, 2001, little has been done to improve our intelligence capabilities. This is not true. We are unquestionably a safer nation today than we were three years ago. The legislative and executive branches of government have been reviewing and adjusting our intelligence — the gathering, processing and management of it — since Sept. 11. We are vastly more prepared to respond to biological or chemical terrorist attacks than before Sept. 11. Our border security, documentation, information sharing and coordination among government agencies have all been improved. Last month, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on which I serve, issued the first part of our report on intelligence failures prior to the war in Iraq. We have begun the second phase of our report, which will include recommendations on reform of our intelligence community. We have heard and will continue to hear from current and former members of that community, intelligence experts and policymakers responsible for making decisions based on the intelligence they are provided.


The American people should have confidence that our intelligence system is the finest in the world. This is no reason to ignore the reforms needed to meet the threats we face, but it is reason for the American people to feel secure. They should not be misled into believing that they are at risk because of an incompetent, inadequate intelligence system. Panic is not the order of the day. Responsible reform is the objective.

Our society is the most open, transparent and free society in history. Because of this, we will always face risks. The leaders charged with keeping this country safe should never be satisfied that we have done enough. There will always be room to improve our intelligence and security systems.

We will reform our intelligence community. The responsibilities of leadership require our action. But we must not rush haphazardly through what may be the most complicated and significant government reorganization since World War II. By the time the commission that President Bush empaneled to examine U.S. intelligence reports to him next March, we will have completed a massive series of investigations and hearings and a decisive presidential election.

The consequences of the decisions we make regarding intelligence reform will ripple far beyond our shores. The security of the next generation of Americans and global stability depend on our ability to wisely answer history’s call. We must match the timeliness of our actions with wisdom and reason. This requires responsible reform.

Hagel is right. Kerry has politicized the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations by his inane insistence, starting less than a week after its report, that the president was acting too slowly in enacting its recommendations and that, were he president, he would enact its recommendations wholly and without question, down the dot over every “i” and cross over every “t.” Rather than responding that a president, as opposed to an absentee senator, must actually demonstrate responsible judgment and sober reflection, President Bush instead took the bait and allowed himself to be forced into a hasty judgment.

The 9/11 Commission was a panel consisting almost entirely of people with no expertise in intelligence gathering or analysis. Their judgments may nonetheless be quite solid, given the time and other resources they put into the effort. Still, it is the job of presidents and legislators to make judgments on such weighty matters for themselves. Blue ribbon panels are sometimes useful for defusing a political hot potato. They must not become mini governments, however. The idea that an unelected panel should have the combined powers of the executive and legislative branches and have carte blanche over something so important as reforming our national security apparatus is absurd and, frankly, a bit frightening. We had several such panels during the effort to reform our military establishment in the 1940s. The National Security Act of 1947, however, which ultimately created the CIA, National Security Council, and what would become the Department of Defense, was a product of the normal legislative process which considered these various reports as useful inputs but nothing more. That’s the correct outcome.

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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.


  1. Timmer says:

    My understanding is that the President’s recommendations still need to go through the legislative process before anything can happen. The National Security Act of 1947 is, by law, the way we do business in intel. It will take another law to revoke it and put something else in place.

  2. dc says:

    Since the reports recomendations are all items that have been discussed for a couple of years now I have to strongly disagree with both you and Senator Hagel.

    The long awaited release of the commission report was just the starters gun for players who have long prepared (or said they were anyway) to act to shore up our nations security. Bush was too slow out of the blocks on this one. Kerry wins by a mile.