Nation Topics - US Intelligence
News and Features
Dear Dr. Madlaw,
As a newly elected member of Congress, I am appalled at the high cost
of living in Washington. What's a hard-working public servant to do?
Now, here's what the deal's supposed to be: In exchange for greater
security you give up certain rights.
Resentment of US policies is growing.
A new Defense Department spy office could politicize intelligence gathering.
A spate of recent terrorism events--the bombing of a French tanker, the
destruction of a nightclub in Bali, an FBI warning of a "spectacular" Al
Qaeda action and the surfacing of a new Osama bi
Would-be intelligence watchdogs often lack the knowledge or the will to be effective.
The tax-supported Marshall Center offers more fun and games than war games.
In July the Washington Post, under the headline "Panel Finds No
'Smoking Gun' in Probe of 9/11 Intelligence Failures," reported that the
House and Senate intelligence committees jointly investigating the
September 11 attack had "uncovered no single piece of information that,
if properly analyzed, could have prevented the disaster, according to
members of the panel." With an implied that's-that, the committees then
went on to examine broader matters concerning systemic weaknesses within
the intelligence agencies. That was good news for the cloak-and-dagger
set and the Clinton and Bush administrations. Systemic problems tend to
be treated as no one's fault. The committees were signaling that there
would be no accountability for mistakes made by the spies before
In the past year, numerous media accounts have revealed screw-ups,
miscalculations and oversights. The FBI didn't pursue leads on potential
terrorists enrolled at US aviation schools. The CIA had learned that a
suspected terrorist--who would end up on the flight that hit the
Pentagon--was in the United States after attending an Al Qaeda summit,
and it failed to notify the FBI. The CIA didn't act on intelligence
going back to the mid-1990s suggesting that Al Qaeda was interested in a
9/11-type attack. Time magazine noted recently that George W.
Bush's national security team did not respond quickly to a proposal to
"roll back" Al Qaeda.
Hints were ignored and the intelligence system failed, an indication
that reform is vital. To reform effectively, it is necessary to zero in
on specific mistakes as well as big-picture flaws. Yet the
committees--distracted by personnel disputes and a leak
investigation--have not indicated that this sort of comprehensive probe
is under way (the Senate Judiciary Committee did examine the FBI's
handling of its botched investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, an
alleged 9/11 conspirator, and identified numerous incidents of
While the meandering September 11 inquiry is far from done, in recent
months both committees released little-noticed reports (accompanying the
intelligence budget they approved) showing that the systemic stuff is
pretty awful. The Senate committee observed, "it is very difficult to
determine how much money the Intelligence Community has budgeted for
counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterproliferation." It
complained that the CIA, the National Security Agency and other
intelligence bureaucracies are not "able to produce auditable financial
statements"; that thousands of intelligence slots in the military go
unfilled each year, including scores of analysis openings at the US
Central Command, which is responsible for the fight against Al Qaeda;
that the intelligence agencies' terrorist databases are a mess; that FBI
training for counterterrorism agents is inadequate. The committee also
groused that the "community" has repeatedly ignored Congressional
requests for information.
The House intelligence committee offered a grimmer assessment. It
maintained that extra funding is being put "into an organizational
framework that gives little indication of being prepared to produce
intelligence capabilities that can address the national security demands
of the future." The committee noted that "significant gaps in the
Community's analytical capabilities are widening, and present
opportunity for further surprise in national security areas." It
implored Bush to act on the findings of a commission led by Brent
Scowcroft, Bush Senior's National Security Adviser, which last year
recommended placing the Pentagon's three largest intelligence-collection
agencies, including the NSA, under control of the director of central
intelligence. With that plea the committee was urging the reversal of a
decades-long trend in which military imperatives--rather than political,
economic or diplomatic concerns--drive the collection and analysis of
intelligence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, though, has thwarted
such a shift.
And a House intelligence subcommittee put out a brief September 11
report in July that cited fundamental flaws within the intelligence
bureaucracy. "CIA's problems," it said, "require more than just
expressed commitment from senior CIA managers...the subcommittee will be
looking for deeds rather than words." Did that mean that the
subcommittee, ten months after September 11, was still not persuaded
that the CIA was acting vigorously to correct the institutional defects
that led to the surprise of that day?
Those reports, produced by committees traditionally cozy with the
"community," hardly inspire confidence in the spies. They could cause
one to wonder whether the committees are throwing money (the several
billion dollars added post-9/11 to the classified $30 billion-plus
intelligence budget) at a wasteful and disorganized bureaucracy. And the
problems are probably worse than described. For years, the intelligence
community has been plagued with fragmentation and insufficient
coordination and dominated by military concerns as the bureaucratic
rigor mortis that inhibits unorthodox thinking (as in how to better
understand the world, rather than how to be like Bond) has deepened. Mel
Goodman, a senior CIA analyst for twenty-four years, maintains that the
"analytical culture" at the CIA has "collapsed" over time, leaving the
agency without the ability to conduct effective long-term research and
analysis. And Gregory Treverton, a senior analyst at the RAND
Corporation and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence
Council, notes that within the CIA "an emphasis to be fast and quick
drives out the ability to think longer and harder" about subjects not in
the day's headlines. He sensibly favors transforming the analytical side
of the CIA into a much more open shop that publicly interacts with think
tanks, academics and nongovernmental organizations. "We need to put
together unconventional sets of people to get a deeper understanding,
one with a more historical foundation," Treverton says. "But how that
gets done is the question."
Indeed. How do you get any bureaucracy--particularly a clandestine
one--to behave creatively and responsibly? Inertia and infighting have
often derailed well-intentioned intelligence reform (see Rumsfeld).
Whatever its chances, fundamental reform--including demilitarizing
intelligence, reshaping the bureaucracy and transforming internal
values--is unlikely in the absence of a thorough, as-public-as-possible
investigation into the errors of September 11, large and small.
Taking on the intelligence community (and forcing a transformation)
appears to be too much for the committees, which have been slow to hold
public hearings. They have politely issued complaints, but they mostly
have eschewed fingerpointing for handwringing. In a slap at the
committees in July, the House approved legislation to establish an
independent commission to examine September 11 intelligence issues. In
the Senate, Joe Lieberman and John McCain have been pushing an
independent review that would also dissect transportation security and
diplomatic and military matters. The less than impressive performance of
the intelligence committees "has made people in both houses look at the
independent commission bill again," says one Democratic Congressional
aide. The Administration opposes such a panel.
In February CIA chief George Tenet testified that the agency had done no
wrong regarding 9/11, and that the attack was not due to a "failure of
attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort." The
committees ought to question his grip on reality. Yet they don't seem
eager to disprove Tenet or to probe or challenge the covert bureaucracy.
They show no signs of exploring all the intelligence and policy errors
related to September 11. And so, they are unlikely to fix them.
The National Endowment for Democracy has been busy--and far from