Three lessons for US intelligence
The raging Republican and Democratic hyperbole about what the president knew before Sept. 11 is most unfortunate. The headline in the New York Post "Bush Knew" was ridiculous. So, too, is the administration's claim that it did all it could to deduce what was going to happen.Skip to next paragraph
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We need less recrimination about yesterday and more edification about the lessons to be learned for tomorrow.
Lesson No. 1: The US must dramatically improve coordination of intelligence efforts.
Last summer, the FBI in Phoenix did not talk to the FBI in Minneapolis. Those at FBI headquarters in Washington who talked to Phoenix didn't talk to their upper echelons. The FBI did not talk to the CIA next door. And there was a lack of institutional memory about the number of well-publicized threats by terrorists over the past eight years to employ commercial airliners as suicide bombers.
Has the administration done all it can to correct this lack of cooperation and exchange of data? The answer is no, because there is still no one person in charge of coordinating the 14 entities within the US intelligence apparatus. With a stroke of the pen tomorrow, the president could make the director of central intelligence (DCI) responsible for ensuring coordination and give him/her the authority to do so.
In 1977, when President Carter interviewed me for the position of DCI, he emphasized that the job entailed not only managing the CIA, but also coordinating all elements of the intelligence community.
The law establishing the post of DCI had not granted the position any meaningful authority. But President Carter remedied that with an executive order that gave the DCI more authority over the intelligence community than ever. It was particularly directed at ensuring coordination of the clue-gathering efforts of the agencies that collect intelligence data.
Unfortunately, when President Carter left office, the next presidential executive order deleted this authority of the DCI, under pressure from the Defense Department. Today, Defense controls about 80 percent of the intelligence budget and the DCI must negotiate and cajole to get coordination.
No one is in overall charge of the US intelligence apparatus. This is because the Defense Department fears that a DCI might neglect the military's needs. That concern is understandable, even justifiable. But the events of Sept. 11 should have changed our perspective on national security.
Military attacks are no longer the No. 1 threat the nation faces. Adjudication of intelligence priorities, then, no longer belongs in the military's hands. Rather, it should be the DCI reporting directly to the president and reflecting the president's overall priorities for the nation who calls the shots. The president, then, by simply issuing a new executive order, could place the DCI in charge and move a good distance toward rectifying the failure last summer to deduce what would happen on Sept. 11.
Lesson No. 2: Don't always think in terms of Western, Judeo-Christian culture. Before 9/11, the administration could not imagine the use of civilian aircraft as weapons, despite a number of concrete warnings. But it should have.
The nation does not have time today to train up a corps of experts on Islam, the Middle East, and South Asia, and place them in various intelligence and policy agencies. The president could, though, direct the National Security Council to organize a modest-sized think tank of such experts. It could draw upon Islamic immigrants and American scholars. The objective would be to ask the question, "What are the Osama bin Ladens likely to do next?"
The excuse we are hearing that the administration thought the warnings on hijackings meant "traditional hijackings" shows Americans are applying their culture, not that of the terrorists, to deduce what may come next.
Lesson No. 3: The nation does have an intelligence foundation on which to build defenses. We should draw hope from the fact that there was much more intelligence data available than previously thought, from which the events of Sept. 11 could have been deduced.
American bureaucracies will not adapt quickly and willingly. Witness the recent, virulent reaction of the Defense Department to the suggestion of enhancing the role of the DCI. The president's best defense against the attacks on him is not to contend that past performance was the best possible, but to ensure that future performance will be better. Without his personal intervention and exercise of decisive leadership, that is not likely to happen quickly enough.
Adm. Stansfield Turner, former director of central intelligence, is on the faculty of the School of Public Affairs at the University of MaryIand.