Intelligence reform already in gear

Whether or not the reform bill becomes law, the CIA is facing a transformation unparalleled in three decades.

In the months ahead, the Central Intelligence Agency will almost certainly undergo its most extensive shake-up in nearly 30 years.

Whether the intelligence reform bill now stuck in Congress becomes law might almost be beside the point. A new director, personality conflicts, and orders from the White House have already combined to produce turmoil at Langley unmatched since the Carter era, when Stansfield Turner cut spies overseas in favor of advanced electronic snooping.

Considering the dangers the US faces, now might seem a bad time for CIA reinvention. Better to have top officials focusing on the internal politics of Al Qaeda than those of their own bureaucracy, after all.

But new Director Porter Goss and his aides believe the opposite - that the era requires nothing less than big change - and they may have found willing ears in a Bush administration that appears to have long chafed at some aspects of the way the CIA does business. "They really do believe they have to start over again," says Robert Baer, a former CIA Middle East operative.

Intelligence restructuring legislation would still have a profound effect on the CIA, the Pentagon, and other US spy agencies, of course. Among other things, it would establish a new National Intelligence Director with budget power over all aspects of intelligence, including those overseen by the Department of Defense. It would also establish a joint counterterrorism center whose head would be a presidential appointee, subject to Senate confirmation.

Overall, "it puts into law not only the recommendations from [the 9/11] commission but other sources as well, and it creates a counterterror framework," said Lee Hamilton, former vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, at a Monitor breakfast on Tuesday.

But at the time of writing, the bill remained stuck in the House due to the concerns of several powerful Representatives about its possible effect on the military chain of command, and its lack of certain immigration controls.

Some lawmakers have questioned whether President Bush really supports the bill. Republican committee chairmen are the ones halting action, after all. And top military officials have openly expressed their hope that nothing be done to effect their control over tactical aspects of intelligence.

Still, White House aides said they would push the bill this week. Among other things, Mr. Bush will send a letter to congressional leaders making his views on the legislation clear.

In the meantime, the administration has plunged ahead with intelligence reform of its own. In recent days, Bush has signed a series of executive orders that taken together might change the CIA's character, if not its size.

Among other things, the orders call for the CIA to increase the number of analysts and covert operators by 50 percent. Language training is set to be greatly expanded. Research and development on technical means of counterterror operations is slated to double.

THAT'S all well and good, notes Mr. Hamilton. But executive orders - unlike legislation passed by the Congress and signed by the president - can be undone with a stroke of a pen. The changes "need to be made permanent, institutionalized," said Hamilton at the Monitor breakfast.

Against this background, the CIA is also experiencing top-level personnel turmoil. The head of the agency's clandestine unit, the Directorate of Operations, and his deputy resigned in late November following a clash with the chief of staff of new director Goss. The officials who headed the Directorate of Operations in Europe and the Middle East have also reportedly resigned - and deputy director John McLaughlin announced his retirement a few weeks ago.

Overall, some 20 senior officials have left or retired in recent weeks. "My first reaction is to give Porter Goss a chance, but what's he going to do now?" asks Robert Baer. "I think he's going to effectively have to get a caretaker crew in there and start over again."

Overall, the expansion of analysts and clandestine operatives forseen by the Bush executive orders should only help the CIA do its job, say many analysts.

But building the new, larger intelligence structure will take months, if not years. Former intelligence officer Michael Scheuer judges that the likely timetable might even be five to seven years.

And the old structure may not have been exactly crumbling. Any US intelligence successes may now be overlooked in the race to redesign an agency that is being fingered for perhaps more than its share of blame in the terror strikes. "It's easy to dump on the human spy service because it can't defend itself," says Mr. Scheuer.

In the end, the drive to reform intelligence may be creating opportunities and dangers. The opportunity lies in positive change; the danger in action for action's sake. Ill-considered reforms would likely do more harm than good, wrote Richard Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs.

"At the end of the day, the strongest defense against intelligence mistakes will come less from any structural or procedural tweak than from the good sense, good character, and good mental habits of senior officials," wrote Mr. Betts.

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