Intelligent Design

Bush may have embraced the 9/11 Commission, but effective intelligence reform is still a long way off.

| Fri Sep. 10, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

Intelligence reform took a giant step forward on Wednesday when President Bush announced that he mostly endorsed the 9/11 Commission's recommendation for a national intelligence director (NID) with full budgetary authority. The move was certainly a break from Bush's statements in an August 2nd press conference, where he merely proposed to give the director the ability to "coordinate budgets" -- a meaningless power for anyone trying to control the entrenched bureaucracies in the intelligence community. The president's latest remarks, then, are certainly more coherent than the old ones. But Bush's new proposals still have their problems, and the obstacles to effective reform are still numerous.

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In his draft proposal on Wednesday, the President stopped short of embracing all of the 9/11 Commission's proposals. The Department of Defense would still maintain its authority over the National Security Agency (NSA), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had previously argued that the Pentagon needed control over these services to maintain battlefield capacity. While these concerns are somewhat valid, the compromise solution offered by Bush will make it harder for the NID to direct satellite imaging and other surveillance technology for his own ends. The surveillance agencies already do a number of nonmilitary tasks, and many of their capacities could be used to combat terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and other emerging threats. Earlier this year, Ashton Carter, an assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, testified that the Defense Department has done a poor job of coordinating its technical capacities to track weapons of mass destruction. The NID will have a hard time changing this state of affairs if he or she has to jockey for resources constantly with the Secretary of Defense.

Overall, though, Bush's proposal falls in line with the general consensus on reform, and might be the most practical compromise, given the Pentagon's strong recalcitrance. The real question is why Bush took so long to endorse the NID in the first place. Recall that back on August 27th, the president had created by executive order the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) -- an item that the 9/11 Commission had also proposed. By taking this step, it turned out, Bush had basically committed himself to most of the 9/11 Commission's proposals.

Despite all the hullabaloo over the national intelligence director, the proposed system of National Intelligence Centers like the NCTC is probably the more important and radical aspect of the reform effort. Under this system, according to RAND analyst Gregory Treverton, the intelligence community would be structured along the lines of the military, with operations separate from analysis and planning. Agencies like the CIA, DIA, and NSA would train and equip agents, as well as collect raw intelligence in the field. Those agencies would then loan analysts to a center like the NCTC to look at all available intelligence on a given topic (in this case, terrorism), and make policy recommendations. The agencies themselves would then carry out whatever field operations needed to be done. To use a military analogy, the agencies are the armed forces -- training soldiers and fighting wars -- and centers like the NCTC are Central Commands.

There are problems with this approach, and it's far from obvious that this is the correct way to go about things. But the important thing is that the president simply can not create a National Counterterrorism Center without a strong national intelligence director. Agencies like the CIA and DIA are going to be loath to send their best analysts away, so there needs to be a director who could plausibly enforce that coordination via budget authority. As it stands now, the NCTC's predecessor -- the Terrorist Threat Integration Center -- has had trouble drawing support from Homeland Security and other domestic intelligence sources, because it reports only to the director of the CIA. Now one could argue that no single person could coordinate all these various efforts; but in that case you may as well just do away with the whole system.

Of course, a fully-empowered NID hardly makes everything better. The system of national intelligence centers still needs new and improved congressional oversight. As it stands, the oversight system is an unwieldy mess, with intelligence agencies currently reporting to an endless hodgepodge of different committees -- the Armed Services Committee oversees tactical intelligence, while the FBI reports to the Judiciary Committee, and so on. A single oversight committee would better enforce the coordination necessary under the new system (though under Bush's plan, the Armed Service committee would most likely still oversee tactical agencies like the NRO). In that vein, the 9/11 Commission has proposed to consolidate all of the manifold committees, creating either a joint oversight committee, or one committee for each house. Because of the delicate nature of any such shuffling -- committee members will jealously guard their turf -- Congress has postponed these reforms until January.

In addition, the 9/11 Commission recommended that committee members be allowed to keep their seats indefinitely. Members can currently only serve eight-year terms, a rule that was originally designed to prevent the overseers from getting too chummy with the agencies they were supposed to oversee. Nowadays, however, the danger is that the intelligence community can take advantage of inexperienced committee members. As one senior intelligence official recently told U.S. News & World Report, "The members don't even understand their own questions. We have to suggest to them what questions to ask us--it's appalling."

Contrary to what many commentators have argued, however, the main problem is not that intelligence officials spend too much time testifying. "Most of the testifying goes on within the two main intelligence committees anyways, so consolidating the agencies won't change that aspect," said Loch Johnson, a professor at the University of Georgia who has served on several intelligence committees. "The real problem is that members of Congress don't have much incentive to be good overseers, since it doesn't help them get re-elected." Richard Durbin expressed similar concerns when he told the 9/11 Commission that there was too much "focus on personal investigations, possible scandals, and issues designed to generate media attention."

So good oversight is necessary. But what kind of oversight? Most observers, including the 9/11 Commission, believe that Congress simply hasn't been aggressive enough. In April, Sen. Bob Graham told the Washington Post that Congress should have known about the FBI's failure to assess the strength of al-Qaeda during the summer of 2001; but no one on the intelligence committees bothered to ask. Indeed, the Senate Intelligence Committees held only one closed-door hearing on al-Qaeda in the months before the attack. During the buildup to the Iraq war, only a handful of senators and House members read the details of the 92-page National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons programs. Had they combed through the document, they would have known that the intelligence on Iraq's WMDs was hardly a "slam dunk."

Structural reforms alone won't fix these problems; the real cultural changes will have to come from within. Leaders in the Senate and the House should do a better job to reward good oversight grunt work, be it with plum committee assignments or other incentives. And the media, for its part, could do a better job tracking the success of congressional watchdogs. (This last task could prove difficult; for obvious reasons, Congress holds intelligence hearings behind closed doors.)

The reverse argument, of course, is that too much congressional oversight hampers intelligence efforts -- a view taken by Stephen Knott, an associate professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. "A certain culture has developed within the intelligence community to avoid risky operations that would cause a stink on Capitol Hill. The agencies constantly have to worry about Senators and Congressmen threatening to go public and expose what's going on." Abolishing term limits and letting committee members gain experience will help here. And creating a single oversight committee would avoid situations where the intelligence community must follow wildly conflicting directives from a whole slew of committees, according to Knott.

As a final note, some of the problems with the intelligence community go far deeper than any piece of legislation can fix. In his new book, Intelligence Matters, Sen. Bob Graham describes how many of the intelligence failures before September 11 were caused by incompetence within individual agencies. In response, Fred Kaplan recently wrote that we need to make "the intelligence agencies more intelligent." And as several intelligence experts have stressed to me, the choice of national intelligence director will be crucial. (Knott described how George Tenet -- who had worked as a congressional staffer for many years -- had made the CIA even more wary of provoking outrage in Congress.) Both the 9/11 Commission and the president have offered decent starting points, but full-on reform remains a long way off.