Toward More Intelligent Intelligence

Some observers believe that with the departure of George Tenet as CIA director, along with critical reports from both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 commission (surely the House Intelligence Committee cannot be too far behind) regarding massive intelligence failures of radically different kinds, the time for reform may be at hand. Indeed, the New York Times last month figured that when combined with the resignation of operations director James Pavitt, the developments create “a ‘perfect storm’ that could open the way to an overhaul of the intelligence community, including the creation of a post of national intelligence director to oversee all intelligence agencies.”

On this issue, whatever reputation I might have as a cockeyed optimist among friends who know my unfailingly cheerful nature will have to go by the boards. While there is some chance that U.S. intelligence will be improved marginally, mainly through the human impulse to focus a little better when real chips seem to be down and one has been embarrassed by past failures, I doubt seriously if the kind of thoroughgoing reform many seem to hope for is likely.

There are just too many intelligence agencies with too-long histories leading to ingrained cultures that will resist change. I don’t see many signs of a willingness either in the administration or Congress to do the heavy barnacle-scraping that would be necessary for changes that make significant differences. We can expect new faces atop various agencies, but not much more – though I would love to be wrong.

Accretions of the Past

The CIA was formed from the OSS, which was formed to fight World War II. Impelled by the exigencies of war, the OSS had done some creative espionage. The CIA’s major job, during the Cold War, was to keep tabs on the Soviet Union and its various plans and actions around the world, although it undertook other functions as well.

Again, impelled by the perceived exigencies and threats of the time, it seems to have done some good work, although it missed a lot along the way. Most of its best sources in the old Soviet Union were defectors who had become disgusted or disenchanted with the creakiness and cruelty of the oppressive system created by what really was something of an evil empire. Old hands still talk about all the successes they had that they still can’t talk about for security reasons, but they blew the U-2 mission, missed much of a remarkable dissident movement that started to build in the late 1960s, and most definitely missed many of the signs that the system was on the verge of collapsing from within, from its own weight, that should have been apparent in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Along the way the CIA followed the classic path of government bureaucracies, some of which can be quite effective when they are new and have a definite mission and sense of excitement about that mission, but which become more bureaucratic and sclerotic as they age.

NASA is a classic example. Impelled by the mission to the moon in the 1960s its people innovated, cut red tape and sought creative ways to get the job done for quite some time. But it became stodgy and imbued with the cover-your-ass mentality soon enough, leading it to become too wedded to the shuttle program and mistaking paperwork for actual safety programs. It was hardly unpredictable, then, that some shuttles would crash or fail. Even with a stated philosophy of better-faster-cheaper in recent years, and some success in Mars probes, NASA has become a sad example of the tendency of government agencies to get worse and worse as time goes on.

Losing a Mission

The CIA became similar, with the process complicated by the fact that there were real “moles” – enemy agents that embed themselves in an adversary’s intelligence agency and stay quiet for years or decades until they reach a position where they can be genuinely useful with access to really key data – and an ongoing search for them that inevitably led to a certain paranoia. Completing the paperwork became more important than doing the job, and guys like Aldrich Ames flourished for years before they were caught.

Then the Cold War ended and the CIA was suddenly an agency without a mission. It didn’t go out of business, of course. Instead, it engaged in a frantic effort to find a justification for its continued existence, although it was really never in much danger of losing funding from a Congress that funds wasteful spending on a daily basis.

They had a go at economic espionage as a way to maintain America’s economic dominance, but it turned out that multinational companies (having a real bottom-line interest) usually had better sources and methods. Then, when Al Gore was vice president and in charge of “reinventing government,” there was a brief flirtation with the international environmental movement, supplying satellite photos to help document and perhaps counteract environmental degradation around the world. But neither these nor a few other potential missions tried on briefly for size offered much satisfaction. This was an espionage organization built to counter communism, after all.

Starting Over?

If we had had any sense, we would probably have abolished the CIA in the early 1990s and replaced it with a small, lean outfit devoted to getting the real goods on the terrorists who were just beginning to emerge as a potential threat (as Richard Clarke documented in his somewhat valuable book Against All Enemies). But that would have been violating all the rules of bureaucratic empire-building in favor of common sense, and it would be just too much to expect that in the United States – or much of anywhere else. Instead the agency remained overgrown and growing, without much of substance to do except fight turf battles. The 1990s was a decade of relative prosperity when the biggest crisis seemed to be the president’s inability to keep his pants on. It’s hardly surprising that our vaunted intelligence agencies weren’t able to connect the dots before 9/11 – although to be quite fair the older agency might not have been able to do so either.

It’s easy to criticize with 20/20 hindsight and talk about what they should have been able to know or deduce, but catching the 9/11 plotters really would have been quite difficult. One of the characteristics of modern jihadists is an ability to learn from mistakes and come back and get it right the second or third or fourth time they try. With the CIA and other agencies, there simply wasn’t the urgency to do so prior to 9/11

If I had my druthers, even now, we would abolish the old agencies, spend some time figuring out the real exigencies in an era of stateless terrorist organizations rather than classic state-on-state conflict, and decide rather gradually just what was needed, if anything, in the way of intelligence in the new era. I’ve written a bit about what those needs are in the era of jihadist terrorism. The existing agencies don’t seem positioned to do it. A new agency with relatively narrow assignments and the sense of excitement and adventure that sometimes comes with starting anew might have a chance.

There’s also the little matter that policy precedes intelligence needs. If the United States continues to view itself as the default decider of disputes worldwide, the de facto ruler whose beneficence and wisdom must come into play at every opportunity, it will continue to make new enemies in surprising parts of the world. It will therefore need a huge espionage apparatus to try to identify and defuse some of those new enemies before they can do real damage.

If we were to adopt the humbler foreign policy President Bush seemed to promise in the 2000 campaign – or better yet, a policy whose default is nonintervention and defense only of our own citizens’ freedoms – our espionage needs would be considerably less acute. But I don’t expect that to happen soon unless disillusionment with the Iraq war becomes a great deal more widespread than I sense it is now – and the apostles of nonintervention become a lot more effective and popular than they are now.

In the World as It Is

Short of utopia, then, what chances exist for marginal improvements in the agencies we have now?

While thoroughgoing reform seems unlikely in an election year, it is not too early to think about how to do it.

We’re looking at two different but related topics – a new CIA director and the prospects for reform. Institutional reform designed to shake up apathy and undermine no-longer-effective habits and cultures could be imposed through legislation, but new rules aren’t enough.

It will take an effective, reform-minded director who can win respect (or fear) to implement reform. Such a paragon, however, might be able to shake up and improve the agency without legislation or formalized reform.

President Bush has been coy about when he might appoint a new CIA director, given that Mr. Tenet’s deputy, John McLaughlin, is in place as acting director and any appointment made before the November election would undoubtedly become a partisan political issue. But senators from both parties have urged him, considering the urgency of possible terrorist threats in the near future, to make an appointment sooner rather than later.

So what attributes should a new CIA chief have, and how might the intelligence “community,” which includes the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, the FBI and agencies for each military service, be reformed to meet the challenges of global terrorism?

It won’t be easy and it might be impossible to approach an ideal solution.

Too Cautious or Too Aggressive?

Recent events highlight the difficulties. Intelligence agencies have been widely criticized for failure to “connect the dots” to pull together disparate pieces of information that might have given authorities a chance to prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. More recently, the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized the CIA, for connecting dots regarding weapons and collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaeda that weren’t quite there.

So there are dangers in being both too cautious and too aggressive in identifying potential threats.

The most prominent proposal for reform is to create what Intelligence Committee member and California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman calls “a true director of the entire intelligence community – all 15 agencies – who has the necessary authority, responsibility and accountability.” Several proposals incorporating this basic idea have been put forward.

The problem is that in theory and in statute, the head of the CIA – the Director of Central Intelligence – already has that position. But in practice, due to turf jealousy, long-ingrained agency cultures and informal barriers to communication, no DCI has ever had effective control of agencies other than the CIA, and some have had little control over the CIA.

Reporters who handicap such matters say former Navy Secretary and 9/11 commission member John Lehman and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage are the most likely candidates for CIA chief. (Former Sen. Sam Nunn has taken himself out of the running and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss is considered too political.)

Newport Beach Republican Rep. Chris Cox, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee (who has also been mentioned as a candidate) told me the new CIA chief must first and foremost be a “change agent.” We need better human intelligence and better communications among agencies, he said, and the new chief needs to shake up the entrenched bureaucracy to accomplish that.

I would add that any new CIA chief must have the gumption to keep intelligence-gathering independent of politics, and to tell the president, from time to time, that his assumptions are wrong and his plans impractical. Both requirements are difficult – intelligence and policy are always intertwined and presidents don’t like to be rebuffed – but these are ideals toward which to strive.

Further, we should consider the possibility that the key might not be more money and resources for the “community” overall, but less. The larger an institution, the more difficult communication and maintaining focus become. All our intelligence agencies are to some extent encrusted with overlapping and often counterproductive layers of bureaucracy.

Recent events, along with troubling indicators building at least since the 1970s, suggest that U.S. intelligence capacity is badly flawed. Agencies built to counter the Soviet behemoth face a threat from a decentralized non-state terror network that might have operatives in as many as 60 countries. That will require a nimbleness and flexibility – as well as the kind of on-the-ground human intelligence that has been de-emphasized of late – that have not been in evidence.

Without serious efforts to shake up the system, however future bungles are all but inevitable.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).