US intelligence agencies make headway on reform
Despite concerns about turf wars, a new intelligence director and a rising number of analysts hint at change.
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon recently hosted a meeting of intelligence-community officials to address ways to combat IEDs - the improvised explosive devices that insurgents have used so effectively to kill and maim US forces in Iraq.
One speaker mentioned that the intelligence community could play a bigger role in aiding the military. In addition to gleaning information through penetrating groups and electronic eavesdropping, roles the CIA traditionally plays, he saw a need for good, old-fashioned law-enforcement work, such as the FBI would perform in this country. A tail could be placed on a bad guy, for instance, which could follow him from a warehouse to a mosque and to the culvert where he inserts an IED.
"The FBI is doing forensics, but forensics designed to look at patterns, how they get deployed. It's an interesting innovation," says Gregory Treverton, the intelligence expert from the RAND Corp. who attended the Pentagon meeting."If you want the FBI to become a prevention outfit, it's better to prevent abroad than at home, so the logic goes. Now you have the CIA, FBI, and Pentagon working together on [IEDs] right now."
This is one example of how the arms of the intelligence apparatus are breaking out of past patterns - secretive, compartmented work - to link together in a more inclusive, collaborative way. This is partly due, experts say, to the 9/11 attacks alone. But it is also because of the 9/11 commission's scathing report on intelligence failures, and the ensuing legislation signed into law last December by President Bush.
"You get a sense some progress is being made moving across the federal agencies," says Elaine Kamarck, an expert on intelligence reorganization at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
To be sure, not all the federal government's moves have been successful. Problems persist in combining the various government agency watch lists into one comprehensive list, shared by all related government agencies. And some turf warfare continues. The Pentagon, for example, is taking on more covert operational activity, moving into the CIA's turf. And the FBI, in trying to thwart terror attacks on the homeland, is moving in on some of the CIA's overseas turf.
Still, these agency leaders point out that the United States is safer - no attacks have occurred on US soil since 9/11 - and structural reforms among the intelligence agencies have only begun to be implemented.
One of the biggest reforms, of course, is the appointment of the first-ever director of national intelligence (DNI). Mr. Bush's nominee, John Negroponte, currently US ambassador to Iraq, is expected to return to the US and face Senate confirmation hearings in mid-April.
Meanwhile, a number of other changes, such as creation of the new National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and a refocusing of the FBI from law enforcement to intelligence, are well under way.
The NCTC began operations in early December. It subsumed the CIA's Terrorist Threat Integration Center, including its staff of about 350 and its director, John Brennan, who is currently acting director of the NCTC. The new law calls for the president to name the director of the NCTC, but it is believed that the president will wait for Mr. Negroponte to come on board and make a recommendation.
As the nation's premier front in fighting the war on terror, the NCTC has hired about 600 more people and expects to add another 1,000 or so. Still, ambiguity exists about the NCTC's operations within the new system. The law, for example, calls for the director to report to the president on operational matters, but to the DNI on all other issues.
"They are not meant to conduct operations, but they're meant to do strategic operational planning," says Dr. Treverton of RAND. "If you know what that means, you have a future as a consultant."
In addition to the NCTC, the FBI has beefed up its domestic intelligence capabilities. FBI Director Robert Mueller, in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee last week, said the FBI has hired 476 intelligence analysts through February and plans to hire 880 by the end of the fiscal year.
It's early into the implementation of the reforms to gauge their success, experts say, other than the absence of attacks on the US since 9/11. Still, many experts laud the examples of better cooperation, like that on the IEDs. But at the same time, they worry that the politicians focused their attention only on structural change at the top, rather than on changing the culture within the 15 intelligence agencies and setting up mechanisms for them to work with state and local law-enforcement agencies.
"I don't get the sense that the feds are learning to cooperate with local and state law-enforcement agencies," says Ms. Kamarck of the Kennedy School. "If you look at several of the terrorists who've been apprehended the past couple of years, it's because of the local police: It's the cops who got the guys in London who were planning ricin attacks; it was the cops in Frankfurt who apprehended the alleged terrorists who were planning attacks in Iraq."