The Intelligence Gamble

March 1, 2005

Last December, President Bush signed into law the most sweeping reorganization of the nation’s Intelligence Community in more than 50 years. The legislation’s most significant provision was the creation of a new spy czar to oversee 15 intelligence agencies.

Moreover, it established a national counterterrorism center and included provisions meant to strengthen border and aviation security. It set up a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to serve as a guarantor of constitutional rights.

Proponents hailed the bill’s passage as a hard-won triumph for reason and professionalism. At many points, intelligence reform had seemed dead, only to be revived by unforeseen twists in the political process.

“A key lesson of September the 11th, 2001, is that America’s intelligence agencies must work together as a single, unified enterprise,” President Bush declared at the bill’s signing ceremony. “The many reforms in this act have a single goal: to ensure that the people in government responsible for defending America have the best possible information to make the best possible decisions.”

Having a goal is not the same as reaching it. The reform effort’s critics—and they are legion—have long contended it was a classic example of a Washington tradition: When confronted with a complex problem, pass a bill, any bill, and then insist that by dint of legislative process the problem has been solved.

Military Hostility

The Pentagon was openly hostile. The military Chiefs, for their part, warned about a negative effect on the quality of intelligence relayed to combat forces.

At best, the new director of national intelligence (DNI) will need to be a powerful personality, with strong Presidential support, to be able to operate effectively. At worst, the position may simply become a new layer of congealed bureaucratic fat, further distancing policy-makers from those who gather and analyze the nation’s secrets.

The number of new high-level posts created by the bill may in fact work against its stated aim of streamlining intelligence, complicating the DNI’s job. And the military’s access to strategic intelligence assets in times of war might depend on a few words inserted in the act at the last moment.

In Washington, there are times when acting in haste is worse than doing nothing. That was the point made by a bipartisan group of 11 former top government officials who united in their opposition to the intelligence reform bill last fall, at a time when it was caught in the vortex of the Presidential election. The group included former Secretaries of State Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz and former Director of Central Intelligence Robert M. Gates.

“Intelligence reform is too complex and too important to undertake at a campaign’s breakneck speed,” they said. “Rushing in with solutions before we understand all the problems is a recipe for failure.”

The national commission that investigated the 9/11 terror attacks produced a compelling report detailing one of the darkest events in American history. During the course of its work, this panel—headed by five Republican and five Democratic appointed members—reviewed millions of pages of documents, conducted more than a thousand interviews, and took public testimony from 160 witnesses. Their resultant book offers a thorough narration about how the 9/11 strikes were organized, what happened as they occurred, and how foreknowledge of al Qaeda’s plans eluded the nation’s top officials.

As many see it, however, the section of policy recommendations appended to the end of the volume seemed an odd addition in such a just-the-facts work. Making this point last August in a New York Times book review of the commission report, US circuit court judge Richard A. Posner wrote that combining an investigation of the attacks with proposals to prevent future such calamities is the same mistake as combining intelligence with policy.

“The way a problem is described is bound to influence the choice of how to solve it,” Posner wrote.

Yet the panel’s policy prescription quickly became a legislative cause celebre, effectively promoted by commission co-chairs Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former New Jersey governor, and Lee H. Hamilton, a Democratic former Indiana Congressman.

The intelligence reform bill eventually won support from both candidates before November’s election.

The last effective obstacle to enactment was Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter believed that the centralization of budget authority and other powers in a director of national intelligence might threaten the ability of combat troops to get the satellite-provided intelligence they need.

Hunter finally relented when the bill’s backers inserted in the final version a denial of sorts—a requirement that the executive branch write guidelines to ensure that commanders do not have to go outside the chain of command for intelligence.

“Shame on Us”

In the Senate, meanwhile, the final vote was 89-to-2 for passage. One of the “nay” votes was cast by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who thundered at his colleagues, “Shame on us for not taking the time to better assess this legislation.”

Was Byrd on to something? As the US government moves to implement the sweeping reform bill, critics say it is still not self-evident that its bureaucratic shuffling and renewed focus on centralization will improve the nation’s intelligence—or, indeed, whether it might not actually be harmful.

Consider its centerpiece, the new Office of the DNI.

By law, this position now has budget authority over the nation’s intelligence establishment—which, in Washington, amounts to real power.

However, the DNI and his staff will be a relatively small entity attempting to harness and control 15 different entrenched bureaucracies. (See box, “The Many Faces of US Intelligence,” p. 46.) While the new intelligence czar may not exactly be a flea on the back of an elephant, pretending to steer the pachyderm, the director will need to have a forceful personality to work his or her will on this system.

The intent was to make the DNI the single, accountable official responsible for US intelligence, yet the director will not directly control operational aspects of the nation’s intelligence effort. The legislation is a bit vague, in fact, on exactly how much authority over the disparate agencies a DNI will have, saying only that the director should “monitor the implementation and execution” of espionage operations.

Even supporters noted this shortcoming in the wake of the bill’s passage. For example, Hamilton said the success of reform now may “depend on implementation and Presidential leadership. … There will be battles over authority. You can’t avoid those.”

This distance from the agents and analysts on the ground could also compromise the ability of the DNI to carry out another main mandated task: advising the President. If the DNI’s knowledge of operations is limited to oversight, he may serve as just another layer of personnel between the Oval Office and intelligence producers, according to former CIA Director George J. Tenet.

“I don’t think you should separate the leader of this country’s intelligence from a line agency,” Tenet said at a homeland security and technology conference in December. “This person has to be leading men and women every day and taking risks.”


This problem may be compounded by the fact that the DNI will not be the only intelligence official with Presidential access. The director of the new National Counterterrorism Center also is a Presidential appointee who reports directly to the White House on counterterror matters.

Under the original House version of the intelligence bill, the counterterror chief was to be picked by the DNI. In acceding to the Senate and raising the job’s profile, the House may have inadvertently helped set up a contest for the President’s time and attention on the central issue of combatting al Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups.

And a small point: President Bush had already created his own counterterror center.

Overall the new law created four new senior intelligence posts for Presidential appointees: the DNI and the DNI’s principal deputy (at least one of whom should be a serving or retired military officer, per sense of the Congress); the counterterror chief; and a DNI general counsel. This focus on the top levels of the bureaucracy may, in the end, turn out to be a harmless game of musical chairs—or it could produce a new filter that further homogenizes the intelligence the President receives. At a time when US intelligence has been criticized as cautious and prone to groupthink, such a move could be dangerous.

“The key here is not moving organizational boxes around but getting the right policy decisions made and getting Congressional funding and support for them,” wrote former CIA chief R. James Woolsey in an analysis of the reform bill. “This might or might not have happened under the old organization and might or might not under the new one.”

It is no secret that the Pentagon did not greet the intelligence reform effort with open arms. The uniformed services were particularly unhappy. Their primary concern was that a DNI might have the power to divert precious spy satellites or other intelligence assets away from military-oriented missions and aim them at targets nominated by the CIA or other nonmilitary intelligence agencies.

The line between strategic and tactical intelligence is a blurry one. Without help from the National Security Agency, it is difficult to route Global Hawk reconnaissance UAVs in such a way that they avoid surface-to-air missile sites while patrolling hostile territory, noted Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, at a Congressional hearing last summer.

The Navy depends on strategic-level imagery and signals intelligence for operations in littoral areas, said Cambone, and no single military mission is more dependent on national imagery than combat search and rescue.

“Think back to the shooting down of the aircraft in the Balkans [in 1995] and how we had to move all of those people so very rapidly,” said Cambone. “The national agencies—so-called—operating in their combat support mode were very much a part of the endeavor to rescue that pilot.”

The military over the past 20 years has expended a great deal of energy building interconnections between tactical and strategic intelligence operations. Understandably, the armed services were loath to see them pulled apart for the sake of “reform.”

The Myers Letter

While the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not openly oppose the legislation, the JCS Chairman, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, detailed their concerns in an Oct. 21 letter to Hunter, the head of the House Armed Services Committee. The letter urged passage of the more military-friendly House version of the bill, which protected the services’ intelligence equities.

By December, Hunter, who had been one of the last barriers to the legislation, gave way under intense pressure from both sides of the political spectrum. He accepted a compromise: the addition of language to the intelligence bill saying that guidelines issued pursuant to the legislation “shall respect and not abrogate the statutory responsibilities of the heads of the departments of the United States government.”

This tweak—at first glance, both minor and opaque—in fact requires the DNI to respect the military chain of command, said Hunter, when announcing his agreement on Dec. 6. This chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders. It emphatically does not pass through the office of any intelligence czar.

The result, according to Hunter, is greater protection for America’s troops in the field. “It’s important for the combatant commanders and their subordinates, whether it’s a platoon leader in Fallujah or a Special Forces team leader, to be able to access that intelligence very quickly,” Hunter told reporters.

Before the reform measure was enacted, the system for determining the allocation of national-level assets entailed close consultation between the military and intelligence agencies. The needs of the combat forces were seldom, if ever, shortchanged. In practice it may seem unlikely that US troops under fire would be denied intelligence, no matter how the national security bureaucracy is organized.

However, in situations short of concerted combat, conflicts over these scarce assets might yet occur. For instance, India in 1998 conducted a nuclear test that the US Intelligence Community did not detect. In part, this was because the satellite best suited for the task was aimed at Iraq, where the US military was enforcing no-fly zones against the Saddam Hussein regime.

“Supporting the no-fly zone wasn’t that critical”—at least not so critical that it had to be done 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, who served a highly controversial and much criticized tour as director of central intelligence under President Jimmy Carter.

Whether or not the bill actually leads to higher-quality intelligence, it is certain to keep large parts of the nation’s security bureaucracy in upheaval for years to come.

The Many Faces of US Intelligence

The US Intelligence Community is defined within the National Security Act and its various amendments. It currently comprises the following 15 federal entities:

Specialized Intelligence Agencies

  • Central Intelligence Agency
      Defense Intelligence Agency
        National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
          National Reconnaissance Office
            National Security Agency

          Sub-departmental Intelligence Units

          • Air Force—Air Force Intelligence Office
              Army—Army Intelligence Office
                Coast Guard—Coast Guard Intelligence Office
                  Energy—Office of Intelligence
                    Homeland Security—Director of Information Analysis and

                  Infrastructure Protection

                  • Justice—FBI National Security Division
                      Marine Corps—Marine Intelligence Office
                        Navy—Naval Intelligence Office
                          State—Bureau of Intelligence and Research
                            Treasury—Office of Intelligence Support

                          All activities of the CIA, DIA, NGA, NRO, and NSA are focused on intelligence collection and analysis. These government organizations, in their entirety, are deemed to be members of the official Intelligence Community.

                          The other 10 IC members shown here provide vital intelligence functions within organizations that otherwise are not involved in intelligence work. Only these specific units—not the parent department—belong to the Intelligence Community.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Space—The Next 50 Years,” appeared in the February issue.