Fixing Intelligence

It is fashionable to believe that the intelligence community “failed” on 9/11 and that if it is “fixed,” future terrorist attacks can be prevented – and by implication, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could have been prevented. Such thinking assumes that intelligence can be perfect, but as James W. Harris – former chief of the Strategic Assessments Group, Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency – makes clear, “intelligence cannot achieve omniscience.” And it is important to point out that the intelligence community has been successful in preventing terrorist attacks, including planned attacks against the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York in 1993 and against airports on the West Coast on the eve of the millennium. The reality is that the intelligence community will have its share of successes and failures – hopefully more of the former than the latter – in preventing terrorism. But it is quixotic to believe that America’s intelligence apparatus will be able to uncover every terrorist plot and thwart every attack.

This is not to say that there is no room for improvement and that the intelligence community can’t do a better job. Indeed, the community must do a better job – but even at its best, it will not be perfect. The question is: What should be done? The Bush administration’s answer has been to reorganize the intelligence community, largely by putting the 15 separate agencies with intelligence responsibilities – including the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency – under the operational and budgetary control of a newly created national intelligence director. Such a reorganization may address some important issues – for example, fostering more joint action among the 15 intelligence agencies via the creation of a National Counter-Terrorism Center that is modeled after the Pentagon’s Joint Staff – although it’s worth noting that turf battles still exist between the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. And vesting budgetary control in a national intelligence director is one way to more rationally allocate spending and resources. For example, about 85 percent of the estimated $40 billion spent on intelligence activities goes to the Defense Department, only about 10 percent is for the CIA, and the remainder is spread among the other intelligence agencies. If the war on terrorism is not primarily a military war, perhaps the intelligence budget could be reallocated among the Defense Department and other intelligence agencies – with less emphasis on nation-state military threats, since the conventional military threat environment is less severe than during the Cold War, and more emphasis on terrorist threats to the United States.

But real change and reform is about what the intelligence community does, not how it is organized or budgeted. And perhaps the biggest and most important needed change for the intelligence community is cultural. According to Harris, “The U.S. intelligence community remains handicapped by internal barriers and walls meant to protect intelligence sources and methods.” While the “need-to-know” principle cannot be completely discarded, the intelligence paradigm must shift from a “need-to-know” to a “need-to-share” because no single intelligence analyst or agency has a monopoly on knowing everything or being right all the time about the al-Qaeda terrorist threat. Put simply, that means better communication and information-sharing – which does not require a massive overhaul or reorganization of the intelligence community as recommended by the 9/11 Commission and currently being done by the Bush administration.

The irony is that practically the whole world already knows how to communicate and share information – and does so every day via the Internet and Worldwide Web. Pick almost any subject – however arcane – and most likely a user group, forum, or electronic bulletin board about it exists in cyberspace. Moreover, these user groups, forums, and electronic bulletin boards are often created spontaneously – either by someone seeking information or someone wanting to share information. If the rest of the world can do this with minimal direction and supervision, certainly the U.S. intelligence community can find a way to do so also.

Ultimately, just as people are the driving force behind creating the new digital culture of the Internet, Worldwide Web, and instant messaging, people will be the key to change in the intelligence community. New people at the top level – a national intelligence director and four new deputies for analysis, collection, customer service, and management – don’t eliminate the many layers of bureaucracy that control the flow of information. And if the people who staff the bureaucracy haven’t changed the way they do business in the more than four years since the Sept. 11 attacks, then the likelihood that an FBI field agent’s memo raising questions about Arab students at U.S. flight schools is distributed and read in a timely fashion isn’t any better than it was before – when it was not even seen by managers of the bin Laden and Radical Fundamentalist units until after Sept. 11. Whether the memo would have made a difference is unknowable – according to the 9/11 Commission, “If the memo had been distributed in a timely fashion and its recommendations acted on promptly, we do not believe it would have uncovered the plot.” But certainly if such information is not made available, it is not possible to act on it and have a chance of preventing a terrorist attack.

Yet even if all the problems in the intelligence community are fixed – perhaps most glaringly transforming the FBI from a criminal investigation agency that goes after Mafia dons, brothel madams, and Olympic ice-skating judges into one that puts the highest priority on finding al-Qaeda cells and operatives in the United States – it will still be far from perfect and unable to prevent every possible attack. Better intelligence is a prerequisite but not a panacea – according to Harris, “it is impossible to preempt a threat without knowledge of the specific plot or plots, and it is almost impossible to unearth all of them.” Or as the Irish Republican Army stated after a failed attempt to kill British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in October 1984: “Remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” Thus, if we do not address the underlying reasons why some Muslims become terrorists – including U.S. foreign policy – then eventually our luck will run out, regardless of how much or how well we fix the intelligence community.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.