Reform at the top or bottom?

The current debate about intelligence reform is rich with irony. The 9/11 commission has been rightly applauded for its call to improve information-sharing across agencies. But adopting its key recommendation, to appoint a new "national director" of intelligence, will only plant the seeds of future intelligence failures. The problem is that the commission is urging the creation of a big, balky hierarchy in a new era that, the commission itself admits, calls instead for networking.

Beyond a national director, the commission has proposed slots for three deputy directors and directors of five new, disjointed "super centers" focusing on WMD, crime, and three geographic regions of the world. This just places additional layers of management on top of the 15 existing intelligence agencies. It is almost surely not the way to facilitate lateral information flow, the defining characteristic of networked organizations.

Indeed, the bureaucratic parochialism that prevailed pre-9/11 might well be unwittingly reinforced by the new organizational structure.

To date, this tension between the clear need for better networking and the enduring impulse to expand the intelligence hierarchy has been neither recognized nor debated. During the presidential campaign, both candidates embraced the commission's findings without much reservation.

The commissioners themselves went out and stumped for their policy recommendations, as did some of the families of 9/11 victims.

So, even though the commission's report concludes by calling for a national debate on intelligence reform, it has been hard to find anything resembling a critical analysis of the notion of creating a new national intelligence directorate. But the recent objections by some House Republicans of the Pentagon's possible loss of control over battlefield intelligence may finally spark an overdue examination of this issue.

What would constitute a real debate about intelligence reform? First and foremost, at least one major alternative to the 9/11 Commission's recommendation should be outlined. The commission's report doesn't analyze alternative organizational designs, a deficiency that must be corrected before any major legislation is passed.

Since the commission has already articulated a "top down" approach to intelligence reform, the principal alternative should probably consider a "bottom up" design. That is, instead of investing more power at the top to solve problems, it may be that empowering the rank and file will achieve better results.

A network-oriented redesign of intelligence would emphasize the need to facilitate the flow of information between civil and military, federal and local, and foreign and domestic actors. During the cold war, the US grew adept at building walls between all these types of organizations. Now these walls must come down.

Some already have. Most intelligence operators and analysts will attest that, in the three-plus years since 9/11, there has been more interagency information sharing than ever. Still, more sharing is necessary - we're waging a war that is all about intelligence. Our adversaries operate in small networks of their own. Defeating them will require exceptional nimbleness - an agility that comes only with networking.

President Bush clearly grasps this point, too . His recent Executive Order No. 13355 makes it explicit that, instead of concentrating most data among a few top leaders, intelligence has to be systematically pushed "out to the edges" where it can be of immediate operational use in the field. This order, if followed, promises to reduce existing inefficiencies in the system.

But acting in the spirit of such guidance depends almost entirely on the cooperation of mid-level and senior intelligence managers, who have tended to perpetuate the older, more preclusive way of doing business.

Very simply, they must now either learn to network or be sacked.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln kept replacing generals until he found some who understood and embraced the changes in war wrought by rifles, railroads, and the telegraph. Now, in this new conflict, Mr. Bush should look beyond his tendency to show loyalty to even those who have erred seriously. He must be willing to dismiss those who in any way impede the process of reforming intelligence, and to replace them with officials who comprehend fully the nature of and need for networking.

John Arquilla is a professor of defense analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

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