While most of us are concentrating on the most important events of the summer, such as the Olympic women’s beach volleyball competition, others are wondering how Congress will manage to mess up the reform of our intelligence agencies. It’s predictable that they will, and it’s not even a question of how. They’ll do what the 9/11 Commission told them to do: add more bureaucracy. The intel community needs another layer of bosses about as much as Custer needed more Indians. Congress would do better to remember the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.
If we listen to Mr. Kerry, the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission are to be held in considerably higher esteem than the Bible. Mr. Kerry — his knowledge refreshed by prolonged absences from the meetings of the Senate Intelligence Committee — has concluded that the Commission’s recommendations should be adopted forthwith, without any serious debate. Mr. Bush seems content to let the intelligence community totter along nicely until after the election, but also says that the 9/11 Commission’s work should — at least mostly — be turned into law and practice. Congress seems to be intent on using the Commission’s recommendations to denude the Defense Department of its essential intelligence capabilities. Like all other political battles, it’s about money and power. Unlike others, it should be about improving the product of our intelligence community.
Of the 15 intelligence agencies, most — and most of the budget for them — are either owned or controlled by DoD. This is not some accident, or the result of an anti-CIA coup d’état by Mr. Rumsfeld and his team. It’s the result of the DoD, over the course of about two decades, being the single agency that was willing to devote the time and the money to getting intelligence that can actually be used to make better decisions.
Mr. Kerry and his congressional cohort will use the fall debate to attack Messrs. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz for the failure to find Saddam’s WMD, for failing to quell the insurgency that is still tearing up Iraq, and for everything else up to and including the rising price of oil. The fact that they are not responsible for all the world’s ills will not matter. What will matter to the Dems is their opportunity to emasculate the DoD’s considerable intelligence capabilities in favor of another useless bureaucracy, namely the “national intelligence director” recommended by the Commission to oversee all the intel agencies.
AS I’VE WRITTEN AGAIN and again, the problems with the intel community are the result of decades of interference, decay, and failed leadership. The problem is that our intelligence assets — everything from spies on the ground to satellites in space — are not required by law and presidential mandate to operate jointly like the armed services do. Though the 9/11 Commission recommends reform of the intel agencies to create jointness, its other recommendations conflict directly with that goal. Former Commission chiefs Kean and Hamilton are issuing apocalyptic warnings to Congress, the president, and everyone else: if you don’t do what we recommended right now, history will forever condemn you for allowing the next attack. Balderdash. Before we break what little remains unbroken, we need to sort the Commission’s recommendations. Throw out those that conflict with jointness, and adopt those that support it. Whatever we do, the process that will take years to complete. If the 9/11 Commission recommendations were all enacted tomorrow, nothing much would improve for four or five years. And — as we know from what has happened since 9/11/01 — considerable harm will be done.
Creating a national intelligence director solves precisely nothing. It doesn’t drive the intel community toward improving its product, only toward satisfying another layer of bureaucracy. The best evidence that this approach fails is the Department of Homeland Security.
When the Simpsonian D’OHS was created, it was placed in charge of collecting and compiling the intelligence information about possible attacks against the American mainland. The CIA, FBI and other agencies are supposed to be sharing all the information they gather with Ridge’s crew, theoretically enabling them to warn us of impending attacks. But that’s not what’s happening. Neither intelligence gathering nor analysis was improved by this consolidation.
All of our intelligence assets — from the CIA to the FBI to DoD — are now supposedly coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security. Tactical assets — people in dangerous places, including both civilian and military — are also supposed to be funneling information into the DHS and the CIA’s “TTIC,” the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. This is failing for a host of reasons. Most importantly, as I pointed out two years ago, intelligence analysts need to be closer to those who use their products, not distanced farther from them by more bureaucratic layers. If we do what the 9/11 Commission said, and take away the Defense Department’s authority over agencies such as DIA and NRO, and place it under the NID, we’ll make the same error again, with the same result.
BY TAKING THE INTEL agencies away from DoD, we will reduce significantly the armed forces’ ability to plan for and function in war. As imperfect as the DoD’s intelligence arms are (they, like all bureaucrats, wait for their bosses to ask for something rather than generate their own entrepreneurial and imaginative tasks), they now work in the manner the warfighters need them. Raiding the DoD budget and jurisdiction to build up the new “NID” is an idea worthy of our worst enemy.
The pressures on Mr. Bush and Congress — by Mr. Kerry and the 9/11 Commission — are enormous. But they need to be resisted. We need to focus reforms on improving the intelligence community’s product. What information it gives the president and lower-ranking officials is the stuff that wars and peace are made of. Yes, we need to train more spies as quickly as we can, and operate them in places where our spies have never been before. Yes, we need to instill a culture in our analysts of imagination and openness to their peers. And, yes, we will need to spend an enormous amount of money improving our satellite and aircraft reconnaissance capabilities. But this will take a lot of time. We shouldn’t — whatever threats to our place in history that Messrs. Kean and Hamilton warn of — impose reforms that will do more harm than good.
Few outside the defense community even know what “jointness” means. The complete enmeshing of every service’s assets, tactics, and strategy with those of the others is a culture that is still being forced upon some defense organizations almost 20 years after its mandate by the “Goldwater-Nichols” legislation. If it takes two decades to do it in Defense, it will take no less time in intelligence, where the people are mostly civilians and not under the discipline of the military. We must do everything possible to push them in that direction, and nothing that will do otherwise. For that reason alone, much of what the 9-/11 Commission recommends — especially the absurdity of the “NDI” — should be ignored.
TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the U.N. and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery Publishing).