The 9/11 Commission Chimera

There they go again, I thought to myself while listening Friday to 9/11 Commission Chair Gov. Tom Kean tell senators for the umpteenth time, "I do not find today anyone really in charge of the intelligence community." Kean’s colleagues have been singing from the same sheet of music. Jamie Gorelick: "The authorities to act cohesively do not exist."

Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton shared with the senators his frustration at the answer he got when he kept asking intelligence community officials who is in charge. The president, they said. Hamilton branded this response: "not a very satisfactory answer." And added, "No one would say that the Director of Central Intelligence is in charge."

It need not be so. During my 27 years at the Central Intelligence Agency I served under nine directors and worked closely with four of them. They were in charge.

One of them, Admiral Stansfield Turner, came to the Agency from his post as commander of the Sixth Fleet, with a keen appreciation of the need for the authority necessary to carry out his responsibilities. Recognizing that his authority over the intelligence community was largely ad referendum to the president, he went to President Carter and obtained what was needed. Writing in yesterday’s Washington Post, Turner recounted that Carter issued a presidential executive order giving DCI Turner authority over all 15 intelligence agencies "to reallocate funds and people among them and to set priorities for both collecting and analyzing intelligence." Turner notes, "This enabled a far greater degree of coordination than we have today."

So it need not be the case that "no one is in charge." Mr. Hamilton’s comment notwithstanding, in my view saying the president is in charge is a completely satisfactory answer – and that the president need only empower the DCI by executive order to enable him to get the job done.

Did the commission seek out Admiral Turner’s views during its long investigation? Is it a totally new concept to the commission that, as Turner puts it, "the recommended position of National Intelligence Director (NID) already exists? It is the director of central intelligence, created by the National Security Act of 1947, with responsibility for coordinating the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies."

Did commission staff not uncover Turner’s thoughtful op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor of May 28, 2002, in which he emphasized that: "With a stroke of the pen tomorrow, the president could make the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) responsible for ensuring coordination and give him/her the authority to do so … and thus move a good distance toward rectifying the failure last summer to deduce what would happen on Sept. 11." Turner then added, "Without the president’s personal intervention and exercise of decisive leadership," one cannot ensure that "future performance will be better."

As for the commission’s recommended cabinet-level National Intelligence Director, Turner’s article yesterday reiterated what so many others have been saying – that we don’t need a new layer of bureaucracy. This truism, which should be self-evident, was spoken first by one who ought to know: Tom Ridge, head of the recently created Department of Homeland Security. I was struck by his very quick – and somewhat cryptic – comment on the NID proposal: "I don’t think you need a czar," Ridge said on Fox News Channel. "We already have one level of bureaucracy that we don’t need."

When the commission report was released on July 22, I ran into 9/11 Commissioner Slade Gorton at the BBC TV studio in Washington where we were each being interviewed. I used the opportunity to voice my skepticism regarding whether the proposed post of NID is really necessary, noting that the DCI can already discharge virtually all the tasks in the portfolio of the proposed NID. Gorton gave a wince/smile and then whispered in my ear, "Yes, but he didn’t use those authorities." He was then called in for his live interview, so I was unable to ask the obvious follow-up question.

This brief encounter came to mind as I read a short piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by William Odom, the highly respected former director of the National Security Agency:

"No organizational design will compensate for incompetent incumbents. …When we ask how to improve the intelligence community’s performance, we must recognize that it cannot be much better than the performance of the policymakers and commanders who own it."

I am certain that the 9/11 Commission means well. How it came up with the NID proposal may be explained by the hubris that clings to senior folks with titles, even when they wander far from their area of expertise and experience. The discussion of the NID proposal makes it clear that they lack a basic understanding of the intelligence community.

If that sounds harsh, I make no apology. Much is at stake; there has been enough pontificating. It is time for plain speaking – especially when so many influential people – who cannot be depended upon to take the time to study the commission’s recommendations – are already fawning over them as a deus ex machina.

All 10 of the commissioners are either politicians or lawyers; some are both. Not one has worked in the intelligence community; only two have a modicum of experience in the executive branch of the federal government (John Lehman, who was secretary of the Navy for six years under President Ronald Reagan and Jamie Gorelick, who was deputy attorney general for three years under President Bill Clinton). Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission, also lacks executive experience in the federal government.

Zelikow told an interviewer that the commission’s recommendations are "not a panacea. We may not have the right answers." He got that right.

The unseemly, "fast-track" haste to judgment is, in the well-chosen adjective used by former State Department intelligence director Phyllis Oakley, "wacky." But the conventional wisdom is that as the election approaches, no candidate can risk appearing soft on terrorism by raising the necessary questions regarding how a reconfigured intelligence structure would really work. Even before hearing testimony at Friday’s first hearing by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Chairwoman Susan Collins of Maine and Vice Chairman Joe Lieberman of Connecticut expressed support for creating the post of national intelligence director. Committee members proceeded to fawn over Kean and Hamilton, upon whom they are relying for expertise on intelligence community issues that are as complicated as they are important.

Mischievous Commissions

Warning: Intelligence and politics do not mix well. Congressionally mandated commissions often do more harm – serious harm – than good.

In 1996, for example, the Aspin-Brown "Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community" recommended transferring to the Defense Department the Director of Central Intelligence’s responsibility for processing and disseminating satellite imagery. Understandably, the Senate Intelligence Committee expressed serious misgivings at this evisceration of the DCI’s charter for all-source analysis but in the end acquiesced and the legislation passed.

The practical result? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has imagery interpretation under his aegis. Why do you suppose our incredibly sophisticated satellites and imagery analysts were unable to check and disprove the spurious reporting served up by imaginative Iraqi defectors regarding weapons of mass destruction? Giving imagery analysis to the Pentagon is now widely seen to have been an egregious mistake, but this seems to have escaped the attention of the 9/11 commission.

Now think back to 1998 when the congressionally mandated "Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States" led by Donald Rumsfeld succeeded in revising a 1995 intelligence community estimate in order to exaggerate the strategic threat from countries like North Korea. Key conclusions – since proven wrong – embodied in the Rumsfeld-revised estimate met his immediate need quite nicely by greasing the skids for early deployment of a multi-billion dollar, unproven anti-ballistic missile system.

But the whole exercise wreaked havoc on morale among honest analysts – the more so as they watched the analyst who chaired the revised estimate go on to bigger and better things. A man who gets the desired results, he was also handpicked to chair the infamous estimate of Oct. 1, 2002, on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Ironically, Congress never adopted the recommendations of the very successful Hart-Rudman "United States Commission on National Security/21st Century." Had they been given appropriate attention, there might have been no 9/11.

9/11 Families

What rankles most is the fraud being perpetrated on the families of the victims of 9/11, unintentional though it may be. The families pressed heroically for a nonpartisan, independent investigation; what they got was a bipolar panel, thoroughly partisan at each pole, who nonetheless grew to like one another and decided to settle for the lowest common denominator and hold no one accountable.

Many of the families evidenced a deep need for some reason to hope that, if they were tenacious enough, some good could be extracted from the experience of that horrible day; some reason to hope that by following up on their terrible loss they might contribute in some way to preventing similar tragedies in the future.

But it is as if their van breaks down on the New Jersey turnpike and another van with 10 well-meaning senior executives stops to help. Only two of the 10 have any experience with motor vehicles: One spent three years at an auto manufacturer’s corporate headquarters; the other devoted six years to running a trucking enterprise. None had taken Automechanics 101. No matter. They fall to the task of diagnosing the van’s problem and coming up with recommended solutions for getting the van back on the road.


There is always hope. Gradually the 9/11 families will begin to realize that treating merely the symptoms of terrorism is quixotic; that the soil and roots of terrorism must be dug and uncovered; that, as the 9/11 report acknowledges in a very subdued way, it is Washington’s strong and uncritical bias toward Israel and its invasion of Iraq that produce the long lines at al-Qaeda recruiting stations; that our current approach to defeating terrorism by trying to kill all the terrorists is akin to trying to eradicate malaria by shooting as many mosquitoes as possible; that moving the intelligence director’s chair one deck higher on the Titanic holds no promise.

No, we have to drain the swamp where the terrorists breed. Perhaps the families can now take a well-deserved break and save their energies to help bring that about.


Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).