Time to reform, improve U.S. intelligence

Freedom Editorial

The resignation of CIA director George Tenet, combined with the recent critical report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on pre-Iraq war intelligence and the still-evolving work of the 9/11 commission, may have created what some observers view as a “perfect storm.” It could lead to a serious overhaul of this country’s intelligence agencies.

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

We’re looking at two different but related topics — a new CIA director and the prospects for reform. Institutional reform is designed to shake up apathy and undermine
no-longer-effective habits. 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.

President Bush has been coy about when he might appoint a new CIA director, given that departed director George Tenet’s deputy, John McLaughlin, is in place as acting director and any appointment before November’s election would undoubtedly become a partisan issue. But senators from both parties have urged him to make an appointment sooner rather than later.

So what attributes should a new CIA chief have, and how might the intelligence “community” be reformed to meet the challenges of global terrorism?

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

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-Qaida 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 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.)

Some have said the new CIA chief must first and foremost be a “change agent.” The agencies need better human intelligence and better communications among themselves, and the new chief needs to shake up the entrenched bureaucracy to accomplish that.

We 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, the possibility should be considered 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 U.S. 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 since the 1970s — that have not been in evidence.

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