Seeking the weak link

Creating an intelligence czar wouldn't remedy recent failures

December 03, 2004|By Haviland Smith

CONGRESS HAS SO FAR failed to pass legislation reflecting changes in the intelligence community that were recommended by the 9/11 commission, but that may not be all bad.

The legislation before Congress reflects the frustration this nation has had with the inability to act on the clues that were present before Sept. 11, 2001. If they had been properly collated and interpreted, they might have led to the detection and neutralization of the al-Qaida cell that attacked New York and Washington.

The impetus for the passage of this bill has been the efforts of the 9/11 families who understandably want a law that will better equip the United States to deal with terrorism. They have suffered far more than most of the rest of us, but that does not make them experts on intelligence collection, analysis and production. Their eagerness to act may be precipitous. The premise that it is the structure of the intelligence community that is to blame for intelligence failures is not the core issue.

The legislation was drawn up on the premise that the intelligence community's problems result from ugly, unacceptable interagency struggles. That may be partially true. But the real problems are not grounded in whether the CIA, the FBI and the Pentagon communicate sufficiently well together. Rather, they lie in interagency issues, in the cultures of the organizations involved, that can be approached only from within the management of each agency, not through the proposed reorganization of the intelligence community.

Interagency issues can be solved. The president has had the authority since 1947 to mandate cooperation among intelligence organizations, though he never has used it.

The Pentagon's intelligence collectors never have been terribly effective; they are outcasts in a mission-hostile organization. The FBI is a law enforcement organization in which intelligence collection is alien to its core culture. The CIA, at least until 9/11, has not been interested in tactical military intelligence, thus fueling the Pentagon's appetite and argument for gathering its own intelligence.

The CIA has been decimated since the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union by successive administrations and by a Congress bent on saving money at the expense of the agency's ability to collect intelligence with old-fashioned spying. It also has been referred to recently as "risk-averse," a quality that does not support the kind of aggressive intelligence operations we need in order to operate against terrorists.

A good first step might be to set up only one House/Senate oversight committee and eliminate all of the other committees so that everything would be codified under one manageable roof. It would concretely demonstrate Congress' support of efficiency over turf issues.

It would be dangerous to create an intelligence czar to oversee the intelligence community. It is the diversity of positions in the intelligence community that makes intelligence valuable. To properly do their jobs, policy-makers must have a profound understanding of those differences. We should not expect or want the CIA, the State Department, the Pentagon and the Homeland Security Department to have identical interests or positions.

When a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is written and forwarded to the White House, much of its strength is in its diversity of opinion -- its dissents, disclaimers and qualifications from the participating agencies.

Condoleezza Rice's statement in a radio talk-show interview that no one in the White House read the State Department disclaimers in the August 2002 NIE on Iraq is either pathetic or willfully obtuse. The disclaimers warned of post-invasion hostilities.

The devils really are in the details, and the job of policy-makers is to read all of the details in those NIEs. That's where the meat of intelligence is. Not to do so, whether because they are lazy or because they did not wish to consider information that argued (as the State Department did) against their predetermined Iraq invasion policy, can be exceedingly dangerous, as is evident in all of the negative ramifications of our Iraq policy.

If Congress creates an intelligence czar and if CIA Director Porter J. Goss becomes that czar, will he implement his stated position that the job of intelligence analysts and case officers is to "support the administration and its policies"? Given the indifferent performance of the administration on intelligence provided before the invasion of Iraq, we should not expect that much would change.

If administration policies continue to be formulated before intelligence is examined and then those policies are implemented despite the available intelligence, the creation of a czar may worsen the situation. If he is all-powerful and provides the homogenized intelligence sought by the administration, we stand the chance of losing the extremely valuable and important diversity of the existing intelligence community and its nuanced positions. That could really hurt us.

It could easily lead us into repeats of the Iraq debacle, which serves no purpose other than to set us back in the struggle with terrorism.

Haviland Smith, a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East, was executive assistant to Frank C. Carlucci when he was deputy director of the CIA from 1978 to 1980.

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