Left hand, right hand

August 25, 2004

WHAT'S THE BEST way for the leaders of the country to find out what's really going on? That's a question that has vexed people for a long time, and there's no obvious answer. There's so much information out there - but so much of it is hidden and more of it is misleading - and the very act of putting analysts to work sifting through it all and deciding what's important and should be reported automatically skews the picture. And what if the analysts are jealous of each other, and don't let on what they know?

What you're left with, in a situation like that, is 9/11.

American intelligence agencies let the country down in 2001. They did it again in 2002 and 2003, on Iraq. They could do it again. Yet the urge to do something to fix them comes up against the prudent caution against doing something stupid. Some people want to do something, but later, because America is at war right now. But how did we get into that war in the first place? It began with bad intelligence.

On Sunday, a frustrated Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced one of those upset-the-game-board proposals that would, among other things, break up the Central Intelligence Agency and get spies off the Pentagon payroll. He'd put all the intelligence business of the country under a single, and powerful, national intelligence director. Our prediction: It'll never fly. Our reaction: That's probably too bad.

The central question is how to coordinate and act on the best information possible while avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink. If the CIA and the intelligence wizards at the Pentagon mistrust each other and aren't talking, while all along someone at the FBI has the key piece of information from which everything else makes sense - but no one knows it's there - that's no good. But if everyone across the government is acting in unison, on the basis of a received truth from on high, that's not good, either.

The essential ingredients to a successful intelligence structure are sincere cooperation - and constructive skepticism. Both are lacking now. The culprit, as we see it, is the cult of secrecy.

The myriad agencies of the government are deeply imbued with a culture of secrecy, often for its own sake. To cooperate, or to question, requires an organization to reveal some of what it knows. Better to sit in a bunker in the Pentagon, or at Langley, and try to ignore the other fellow. That attitude explains why Senator Roberts' idea of putting all intelligence work under one powerful director, who could bump a few heads together, is a good idea. And yet bureaucratic jealousies within organizations is hardly unusual. With whatever structural change is eventually agreed upon must come a change in culture as well.

The cult of secrecy is doing immense damage. A nation can't act forever on blind faith; it has to have facts.

This doesn't mean that we want to see the CIA rushing out and publishing everything it knows in the newspapers. What we're talking about is a free exchange of information, and an openness to debate, inside the government, among those charged with figuring out a dangerous world. That would require a huge change in thinking - but it would give the president and other leaders a clearer picture of reality.

If Senator Roberts' proposal could accomplish that, it would be a great development. The obstacles are enormous. But even if it only stimulates real debate, and helps people understand that modest tinkering isn't enough, it will be a welcome contribution.

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