Failing Intelligence

After a year on the job, John Negroponte appears not to have begun the transformation the intelligence community needs

April 23, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Iran's growing nuclear ambitions, al-Qaida's designs on this country, and North Korea's true intentions -- America's future security relies on effective analysis of these and a dozen other challenges in an increasingly hostile world.

The price of being wrong is playing out daily on the streets of Baghdad and Baqouba.

In response to deeply flawed assessments that fueled the march to war in Iraq -- and pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures -- Congress last year ordered that the sprawling U.S. intelligence bureaucracy be brought under the leadership of a single spymaster charged with reshaping it into a more effective organization.

Now, many intelligence professionals -- including some who played key roles in launching the revamped intelligence operation -- believe more-fundamental reforms are vital to America's security interests.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in today's Ideas section about intelligence reform omitted the first reference to Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA management official, along with his comment that spy chief John D. Negroponte has a difficult job ahead of him.
The Sun regrets the error.

The intelligence landscape is still rife with turfsmanship and bureaucratic backstabbing that prevent substantive change and continue to hamper the ability of intelligence officers to do their jobs, they say.

A year into his tenure, America's first director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, has yet to create a global blueprint for intelligence activities, says John O. Brennan, who spent more than two decades at the CIA and was acting head of the new National Counterterrorism Center until he retired last year.

"Just the way one wouldn't remodel a house without an architectural drawing, the intelligence community shouldn't be moving walls and building walls without understanding what the whole is going to look like," Brennan says.

Negroponte argued last week that he was making progress in his efforts to mold an operation in which all 16 American intelligence agencies work with, not against, each other. "This will take time, certainly more than a year," Negroponte said in an appearence at the National Press Club. "But with the right approach, it can be done."

Others are less optimistic. Former intelligence officials and members of Congress echo Brennan's critique and are pressing for deeper changes in the structure and focus of U.S. intelligence operations.

One potential blueprint is the military's model of "unified commands." Adopted in 1986, it established commands around the world composed of members of the four main armed forces and other defense agencies. Today those commands are both regional, like Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East, East Africa and Central Asia, and functional, like Strategic Command, which focuses on combating weapons of mass destruction around the world.

Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, had that model in mind as she spent months negotiating the bill that created Negroponte's job. "We need more command and less bureaucracy," she said in a recent interview.

There are other possible approaches, but Negroponte needs to choose one coherent game plan and implement it aggressively, experts agree.

The new intelligence chief has thus far only nibbled around the edges of an anachronistic collection of intelligence agencies built for the Cold War, many intelligence professionals and legislators say.

"I don't see any fundamental reform going on," said former 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman.

"We need to rethink the whole thing," said Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who was chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "Let's face it, we haven't done it in 60 years, and the world has changed a lot."

Negroponte does not have much time left to make bold changes, some intelligence experts believe.

"This is a critical juncture," said Amy Zegart, an intelligence specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The intelligence community will largely rise or fall on what he does."

Negroponte argues that the team leading the nation's intelligence effort is making progress, particularly in the area of analysis, a major downfall of the Iraq assessment. He said analysts now provide more context in their assessments and are flagging gaps or ambiguities in their conclusions.

Negroponte would have won over many critics had he picked one real fight with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who controls most of the budgets of America's intelligence agencies.

Harman spent the last half of 2004 battling Rumsfeld's allies on Capitol Hill to make Negroponte's job meaningful. But after a year of his leadership, she's disappointed.

"He ceded authority rather than have any fight on a major issue" with Rumsfeld, Harman said. Although she declined to provide details because they are classified, she said her disappointment stems from Negroponte's negotiations with Rumsfeld over what programs would be categorized as "national" versus "military," and she says Negroponte let far too many programs be categorized as military, which Rumsfeld controls completely.

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