President Bush announced in September that he would partially support key proposals for intelligence reform made by the September 11 Commission, which, in its final report, recommended a sweeping restructuring of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. The commission called for the appointment of a National Intelligence Director (NID) who would have full authority over the personnel and budgets of the various intelligence agencies. It further proposed that the NID would be located in the Office of the President and that a National Counterterrorism Center be created. One of the key issues the commission’s proposals sought to address was intelligence “stovepipes,” interagency breakdowns in information sharing. The commission’s list of possible changes included consolidating a number of congressional intelligence-oversight committees and transferring responsibility for covert paramilitary operations to the Pentagon (now within the purview of the CIA).
President Bush backed the idea of creating an NID but stated that the NID post should not be located in the Office of the President and would have authority over only the nonmilitary part of the intelligence budget. The President further stated that the NID should not have control over intelligence-agency personnel appointments. Instead, the NID would appear to duplicate the theoretical coordination powers of the current director of Central Intelligence. Commentators quickly pointed out that the CIA director’s efforts to influence other agencies are now often ignored, making it difficult to see how an NID would be an improvement. The President had earlier agreed to create a National Counterterrorist Center, but he did not make the center’s authority clear: Would the new national center subsume both the more recent Terrorism Threat Integration Center and the older CIA Counterterrorism Threat Center (formed in 1986)? Would this result in yet another layer of bureaucracy and more, not less, “stovepiping”?
Democratic spokesmen drubbed the President for what they portrayed as foot-dragging on intelligence reform, with Democratic congressmen calling for an emergency legislative session to enact reforms suggested by the September 11 Commission. John Kerry has joined the chorus calling for accelerated intelligence reforms, endorsing the commission’s report and proposals in full. Meanwhile, it seems clear that the Bush White House has no intention of reducing the authority of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or putting Republican representation on intelligence-oversight committees at risk via the September 11 Commission’s proposed committee consolidation.
The partisan infighting left some observers pessimistic that anything good could come out of the wrangling over intelligence reform. William Odom, a respected former head of the National Security Agency who testified at congressional hearings on intelligence reform, was frank: “I was sitting there thinking, ‘What are the prospects of anything useful coming out of this?’ . . . If I had to guess, I’d say probably nothing in the way of reform is going to take place.”
Both the CIA and the Pentagon have opposed proposed changes that might diminish their powers and status, underscoring the rivalry—even antagonism—that exists between members of what is commonly called the “intelligence community” and thereby telling the layman all he needs to know about the “stovepipe” effect: Turf battles are inevitable in any bureaucracy, and an administrative re-shuffle, no matter how well thought out, will never entirely do away with the danger of important information not reaching the people who need to see it. Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst at both the State Department and the Department of Defense, described the proposed solutions as “typical,” with policymakers and bureaucrats alike thinking that “if you change the organization chart you’ve solved the problem.”
Cordesman, however, has pointed to a larger problem in the intelligence picture of the “War on Terror”: He—as well as other intelligence professionals—has long complained that, in the case of Iraq, the White House went to war not because of a threat from Baghdad but for ideological reasons that had nothing to with the CIA’s actual findings. Indeed, the history of the War on Terror demonstrates that the Bush administration was not willing to listen to the best information available—from the Pentagon’s creation of an Office of Special Plans to pass unvetted, often highly questionable intelligence from equally questionable sources to the White House, to dubious White House claims about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities, to the pre-September 11 focus on Iraq instead of on warnings that a major terrorist attack was in the offing.
And more fundamental questions have not even come up in the intelligence-reform debate: Can the United States ever hope to prevent another terrorist attack without a serious revamping of immigration policy, regardless of how well the intelligence agencies function? The terrorists, after all, could not have struck here if they had not been inside the United States in the first place. Terrorism will be a perpetual problem if we insist on antagonizing the Arab and Muslim world with our no-questions-asked support of Israel and the occupation of Iraq. Is it worth it? Intelligence operatives can be successful in thwarting attacks nine times out of ten—and the effort will be seen as a failure upon the successful tenth attempt. Do Americans want to live in constant fear of attack? Washington does not want to know. And all the warnings, all the analysis, all the painstaking work of intelligence gathering and assessment will be for nothing if the powers that be don’t want to listen.
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