Loose Canons

Giving Intel the Fingar

Or, how Obama learned to stop worrying and love Eric Holder.

By 5.24.10

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Winston Churchill once said that you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they've tried everything else. In the matter of repairing what prevented our intelligence agencies from interdicting the 9-11 attacks, we're still in the "everything else" stage.

In an April 30 op-ed in the Washington Post, former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Thomas Fingar celebrated the DNI's fifth anniversary. He (and co-author Mary Margaret Graham -- another former Deputy DNI) wrote that the American intelligence community was an Eden-esque garden of intelligence gathering and analysis, sharing among agencies and new technology.

But some of us remember Fingar was the principal author of the risible 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which said the intelligence community had "high confidence" that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. That memory resulted, among those of us who study the intelligence community's workings closely, in more than a little skepticism at the broad claims made in the Washington Post.

Just a few weeks later that skepticism was depressingly justified by the May 18 report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. That report is a devastating indictment of the intelligence community's failures leading up to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's Christmas Day attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 with a bomb sewn into his underwear.

The SSCI report focuses specifically on the Abdulmutallab incident, but the conclusions it draws are applicable broadly to the deep-seated problems in our intelligence community. It says that the National Counter Terrorism Center -- created by Congress to be a central clearinghouse of terrorism-related intelligence -- had both the capability and responsibility to connect the dots but "[t]he NCTC was not adequately organized and did not have the resources appropriately allocated to fulfill its missions."

The SSCI report also says that the FBI's computers were inadequately programmed to search the necessary databases, and that the National Security Agency is backlogged with reports that may result in people being put on the terrorist watch list too late to prevent an attack.

Even the tough language in the SSCI report was too mild for committee members Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Richard Burr (R-NC). They said that Blair's recent testimony to the SSCI on the Abdulmutallab incident -- which said that the problems were not the same as those that blinded the intelligence community before 9-11 -- was plainly wrong.

Chambliss and Burr condemned the NCTC for not doing what the legislation creating it said, to take overall responsibility for tracking terrorist threats. They wrote, "NCTC's failure to understand its fundamental and primary missions is a significant failure and remains so today." They said -- just as the 9-11 Commission found -- that intelligence analysts were suffering from competing priorities imposed by higher-ups. And, they said, the FBI still relies on "outdated and insufficient technical systems."

Lots of dots to connect, no one taking responsibility for doing so. Inadequate attention being paid and not enough technology applied to the job. It is all horribly familiar.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair was fired last week. Likely to follow Blair out the door soon is Michael Leitner, the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, whose agency is the subject of the SSCI's most severe criticism.

But the problems that the SSCI found -- to whatever extent Blair and Leitner were responsible for them -- cannot be solved by firing either or both of them. The problem is that the two post 9-11 overhauls of our intelligence community -- both direct recommendations of the 9-11 Commission -- have failed.

In the first round, the Department of Homeland Security was created and given a portion of the responsibility for gathering and analyzing counter-terrorism intelligence. But injecting yet another line of command into an already too-crowded chain, hurt more than helped.

In the second round, the Director of National Intelligence -- also a direct recommendation of the 9-11 Commission -- and the NCTC were created to solve all the problems of the dysfunctional intelligence community. They, too, failed -- as the SSCI report proves redundantly -- because, like Homeland Security, the DNI is just another layer of bureaucracy.

What was needed then -- and remains the only likely path to success as I warned as early as February 2004 -- is to reorganize the intelligence community based on the model that worked to reorganize the armed services in the late 1980s, the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

In 1983, when American medical students were being held hostage in Grenada, President Reagan ordered a military rescue. What resulted would have been a disaster if our forces had faced a well-trained and equipped opponent because the Army, Navy and Air Force conducted what was, in practice, three separate invasions.

As a result, Sen. Barry Goldwater and Cong. Bill Nichols wrote the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that forced the armed services to work together. It mandated a culture of cooperation in the military that is known as "jointness," an awkward word even by Pentagon standards. It was embraced by the services -- everyone from junior sergeants to the service chiefs -- because it worked. It created a culture of cooperation and resulted in a level of battlefield dominance that has never been seen before.

To repair what has been broken for decades in the intelligence community the White House and Congress need to repeal the legislation creating the DNI and NCTC. It should be replaced with a reorganization of the intelligence agencies modeled on the Goldwater-Nichols bill.

The Obama administration has done more to weaken our intelligence community than any since Jimmy Carter's. Attorney General Holder is blocking intelligence agencies from briefing the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on ongoing matters, though they are legally required to do so. The president has sided with Holder, overriding Blair on that matter (and others) and in overriding CIA Director Leon Panetta to begin Holder's investigation of CIA interrogators.

So it really doesn't matter who replaces Dennis Blair or whether Michael Leitner is fired from the NCTC. Their successors will fare no better than they did because the Obama administration is committed to exercising political control over the intelligence community, not to fixing what ails it.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.