Slow Down the Rush to Reorganize Intelligence

Two different intelligence failures mar the wars against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In its first nine months in power, the Bush administration was careless about evaluating warnings of impending attacks on Washington, D.C. and New York City, while overstating the dangers posed by Iraq.

Months before September 11, 2001 Pres. George W. Bush should have empowered a high level inter-agency taskforce to evaluate Al Qaeda’s activities. In his book “Against All Enemies,” former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke credited Pres. Bill Clinton with giving him the authority to run inter-agency meetings that stopped terrorists’ millennium attacks. As we have learned since 9-11, FBI information about the presence of Al Qaeda operatives throughout the U.S. wasn’t correlated with findings from intelligence agencies.

The attacks of September 11 can now be partly blamed on insufficient presidential leadership, unlike Iraq where it was an overbearing president who ignored dissident views about the country’s military capabilities and coerced the nation into war.

In both scenarios, key administration staffers were unable to alert their superiors or Congress and have their views heard. Had such lower-level government officials been heeded, we might have stepped up countermeasures before 9/11 and thus stripped the administration of its rash march to war in Iraq.

In the aftermath of 9/11, it has only been a small group of reformers who have urged greater independence for government intelligence employees. The September 11 Commission has not been one of these groups. It recommended increasing the president’s intelligence oversight, a dubious conclusion if one studies how the United States went to war in Iraq.

Bush, his Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry, editorial writers and dozens of other government leaders have readily endorsed the commission’s conclusions on how to overhaul the nation’s intelligence community. But David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s national security specialist, has sardonically summarized that finding in this way: “Pentagon officials dragged their feet on dealing with terrorism, so let’s give them more power. The White House politicized the intelligence process, so let’s create a new intelligence czar in the White House and give him control over domestic spying, too. The intelligence community suffers from too many fiefdoms, so let’s create a few more.”

The September 11 Commission recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt. The rush to endorse the report, as well as the call for speedy legislative passage of its recommendations, has puzzled many national security experts.

“Unanimity has its value, but so do debate and dissent in a democracy facing a crisis,” warned Richard Clarke, who has criticized the commission. Its recommendations, he argued, should have urged placing “the C.I.A.’s analysts in an agency that is independent from the one that collects the intelligence.”

The commission failed to address the need for implementing changes in the corporate culture of key agencies such as the FBI and CIA where staffers “joined young and worked their way up,” causing “uniformity, insularity and risk-aversion.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee has taken a different approach from the commission. Committee members investigated the “Prewar Intelligence Assessment on Iraq” in order to prevent future situations in which the nation goes to war based on false intelligence. The Senate report charted a different course. It supports an independent intelligence agency outside of direct White House influence.

As it now exists, the nation’s intelligence community is made up of about 15 different agencies, spread across several federal departments. Pat Roberts, the committee’s Republican chair from Kansas, would reorganize the CIA by creating a new agency incorporating the CIA, the National Security Agency at the Defense Department and about a dozen other agencies into a $40-billion dollar super-agency, organized by specialty such as spying, satellite imagery and intelligence.

The shorthand description—“dismantling the CIA”—is misleading. Roberts explained: “The National Security Act of 1947 ‘abolished’ the Army Air Corps in effect creating the U.S. Air Force. With the stroke of the legislative pen, hundreds of thousands of personnel left the Army and ‘became’ the Air Force virtually overnight. Did the change of uniform, leadership and name ‘gut’ our air power capabilities? Absolutely not. In less than three years from its creation, the Air Force transitioned from the propeller age to the jet age and successfully engaged the North Koreans in both air interdiction and air superiority campaigns during the Korean War.”

Roberts’ proposal concerning the new agency, the National Intelligence Service, addresses the recently exposed intelligence failures from a far more technically sophisticated perspective than the much ballyhooed recommendations of the September 11 Commission. Analysts would work separately from other units. A National Intelligence Council would prepare national intelligence estimates and include dissenting views.

“These estimates must include any alternative views and distinguish between the intelligence underlying such estimate and the assumptions and judgments of the analysts contained in such estimate,” Roberts argued.

Roberts is not proposing the firing of CIA and FBI personnel, but he is trying to consolidate their functions. He prepared his proposal without consulting the White House at least in part because the Bush administration hasn’t consulted with him. Early in September, Porter Goss, Bush’s recent pick for to head the CIA, will appear before the Roberts’ Intelligence Committee, an appointment that could get heated if Goss trashes the new legislative proposal.

The Roberts plan may never pass, but it stops the effort to rush into effect the recommendations of the September 11 Commission. On a political note, it might also mark the emergence of a new national leader who can challenge John McCain for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

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