A challenge for spy chief

New intelligence boss must restore faith, unite agencies, officials say

February 20, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will swear in the country's second national spy chief today, handing Mike McConnell an unfinished experiment in intelligence reform as wartime intelligence becomes the focus of increasing scrutiny on Capitol Hill and in Washington.

There will be an acute need to show results in an endeavor many lawmakers and intelligence professionals say has lagged, and McConnell, a retired admiral and former National Security Agency director, will have less than two years to deliver, current and former intelligence officials said.

"He'll be under some considerable pressure to produce more visible results than we have seen," said Gregory Treverton, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. "The problem is, he doesn't have all that much time."

As the new director of national intelligence, McConnell must tackle two primary hurdles: restoring faith in the quality of intelligence reports and managing all 16 intelligence agencies as one system, former intelligence officials said. It is possible that McConnell could remain as the director during the next presidency.

Last week's heated second-guessing of an intelligence presentation in Baghdad that claimed Iran was arming Iraqi insurgents shows the lingering distrust over failed Iraq intelligence predictions, said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official.

"Look at the reaction to the Iran briefings and how skeptical people were, which is a direct reflection of the Iraq experience," Lowenthal said. "That's going to be a problem for him, re-establishing the credibility," he said. Lowenthal said that McConnell's predecessor, John D. Negroponte, did not have enough time to see such change through.

The credibility gap persists even though many experts cite significant improvements in intelligence analysis.

The distrust dogging analysts as they forecast emerging threats, Lowenthal said, makes it difficult for them to make the bold predictions encouraged by the 9/11 Commission.

"He's got to spend some time getting people to stop obsessing about Iraq," Lowenthal said. That will, in part, require educating lawmakers and the public about the uncertainties that are built into any assessments of threats made with the imperfect knowledge that is inherent in all intelligence analyses, he said.

Perhaps to that end, McConnell told lawmakers earlier this month during his confirmation hearing that he understood that the role of the intelligence agencies in Iraq and Afghanistan was a top priority for them and he would make it one of his as well.

McConnell's other top challenge will be delivering on the promises Congress made in creating the job - to establish one official who presides over all the intelligence agencies and ensures that bits of intelligence are connected across agencies to identify emerging dangers.

Negroponte, who focused his early efforts on establishing his office and his role as Bush's chief intelligence adviser, was not able to build momentum for integrating the agencies' efforts, said John Rollins, a former FBI and Homeland Security department intelligence official.

"McConnell is almost starting from ground zero," said Rollins, now an intelligence specialist with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, a research unit for Congress. Added Treverton, who is now at the Rand think tank, "I'm still sort of depressed at how slow it's gone."

One of the key elements still lacking from the intelligence director, Rollins said, is divvying up responsibilities for intelligence collection and analysis among the 16 intelligence agencies, several of whom, like the FBI and Homeland Security, have new intelligence responsibilities.

McConnell, who took over as director of national intelligence last week, has already voiced a commitment to quick action and begun to lay out his priorities in a series of one-on-one meetings with the leaders of each intelligence agency.

"We face some of the greatest threats that any generation will ever know, and we must not be slow in confronting them," McConnell said in a Feb. 13 memo to all intelligence officers. "My office has much to do, and we will move ahead aggressively. We need your support."

Blending agencies' efforts is central to the priorities McConnell listed in the memo.

McConnell said he would assemble a comprehensive intelligence budget that weighs all national intelligence priorities. He also promised to "revamp" personnel and security policies, which includes the difficult problem of recruiting first-generation immigrants from the Middle East who have long been seen as a security risk. He also vowed to improve collaboration across agencies.

"I will focus on the Community-building work that supports these efforts," he wrote.

McConnell also told lawmakers earlier this month that he would try to focus on the challenges of effective intelligence collection and analysis inside U.S. borders and monitor more closely how effectively agencies are executing high-dollar projects.

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