Commentary: The Smart Way To Fix Intelligence

The system doesn't need wholesale reform. Small changes can get it on track

From Pearl Harbor to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the lesson keeps being repeated: A dollar spent on identifying the threat and preventing the attack can be worth far more than the millions spent safeguarding targets or the billions spent cleaning up the aftermath. Washington has learned one part of the lesson well: The 15 separate agencies that gather and analyze intelligence employ an estimated 100,000 people and spend $40 billion a year.

What they don't do is spend the money efficiently. The "intelligence community" is really "a collection of fiefdoms without interoperable data that don't play nicely together," says Robert David Steele, a former CIA agent who now runs a private intelligence service, Over the past 50 years, 40 studies have noted the lack of focus, organization, and cooperation among the autonomous intelligence branches. Now, with the June 3 resignation of CIA Director George J. Tenet, the release in late July of the 9/11 Commission's report, and the scathing critique of intelligence failures expected from the Senate Intelligence Committee, demands for a massive reorganization of data collection and analysis will once again reverberate through Washington. Proposals will range from the creation of a new domestic spying agency to the appointment of an intelligence czar. "The momentum for reform is increasing, and the convergence of circumstances bodes well," says Amy Zegart, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who is writing about past efforts to fix intelligence. "But history shows that reforming intelligence is extremely difficult."

The middle of the war on terror is hardly the time to tear down and rebuild the intelligence structure. Fortunately, wholesale changes aren't needed. Smart intelligence reform can use small changes in spy-shop culture, budgeting power, and lines of authority to get today's existing agencies all pulling together. Here's what the experts say ought to be done:

LEARN TO SHARE. Intelligence agencies typically compartmentalize their information, the better to protect it. But the Soviet-era spy-vs.-counterspy battle ended 10 years ago, and terrorists don't bother trying to steal state secrets. Now, the disparate agencies, spread through six Cabinet departments, must learn to swap information on terrorism rather than "stovepiping" it. Had the CIA alerted the FBI sooner that key plotters of al Qaeda were in the U.S., or had the FBI shared its concerns about Middle Easterners taking flying lessons, the September 11 attacks might have been foiled.

But how do you change the culture? The same way that the Pentagon cut down on the interservice rivalry in the 1980s: require top officials to work in "joint billets" within other services. Anyone who wants a top job at the CIA would have to do a stint at the FBI or the National Security Agency. "Intelligence, law enforcement, and the military need to understand one another and be properly schooled," says Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, dean of the law school at the University of the Pacific and a former general counsel at both the CIA and the NSA. "But this doesn't require collapsing them all into one unit."

JOIN THE INFORMATION AGE. While U.S. intelligence agencies pour their resources into trying to ferret out secrets, the airwaves and cyberspace are flooded with "open source" information. Much more can be learned by analyzing information readily available -- but the CIA has been allowing its analysis capabilities to deteriorate. Until U.S. spies can penetrate al Qaeda cells, the Al Jazeera TV network and the Arabic press will remain the best sources on Islamic terrorists' intentions. Tapping that information requires more analysts and translators.

FORGET THE MI5 IDEA. After the 9/11 Commission report, lawmakers will rally behind calls for a domestic spying agency like Britain's MI5. That's a tempting idea -- but the time that would be wasted setting it up far outweighs any benefit. Instead, the FBI's mission needs to be redefined to give the counterintelligence branch equal weight with the crimefighters. Now, career advancement is through the criminal division. The FBI must build a parallel path for counterterrorist operatives. "The FBI has never had a culture which rewarded analysis; they're far more focused on reacting to crime, but that's got to change," says Lee S. Strickland, a former CIA officer who now teaches at the University of Maryland.

REORGANIZE -- GENTLY. The Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), who heads the CIA, is also nominally in charge of the entire intelligence community. But in reality, 85% of the intel budget and most of its personnel answer to the Defense Secretary. The recent string of intelligence failures has provoked calls for creating a Director of National Intelligence who would have broad oversight over all spooks. Bills in Congress push the idea, as does John Kerry, the likely Democratic Presidential nominee.

But the DNI could wind up as powerless as the drug czars of past Administrations. The DNI would have minimal staff and no power base. Instead, Congress should give the DCI more say over the military's spy branches, such as the NSA, the nation's largest.

That doesn't mean taking the NSA away from the Pentagon. After all, many of the 2 million phone calls and data transmissions that the NSA intercepts each hour are gathered by corporals, sergeants, and captains at listening posts near the Korean DMZ, in spy subs off the Kamchatka Peninsula, and on reconnaissance flights over Asia. The DCI and Defense Secretary should share authority for top appointments within the NSA.

The DCI should control the budget for most of the other agencies, such as the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages spy satellites. The NRO and other spy operations were housed in Defense largely because their supersecret budgets could easily be hidden within the vast expenditures of the Pentagon. That level of secrecy is no longer necessary, so the overall intelligence budget should be consolidated under the DCI. That would let the DCI settle competition among agencies for key personnel, such as linguists and analysts, and would encourage joint training and cooperation.

REFORM CONGRESS, TOO. The February, 2001, Hart-Rudman Commission on intelligence reform counted 83 congressional committees and subcommittees monitoring intelligence and security. Both the House and Senate have select committees on intelligence -- but those panels provide scant oversight, no legislation, and little institutional memory among their rotating membership. Instead, each house should establish one supercommittee of senior lawmakers.

The good news is that America's intelligence agencies don't lack for information or the means to collect it. But their Cold War habits die hard -- and they're not ready for the new world of stateless terrorists and asymmetric warfare. If the intelligence community is to make the best effort to protect the nation, fiefdoms must be dismantled, data shared, and institutional egos put aside. And the sooner, the better.

By Paul Magnusson

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