Major work left to fix US intelligence
New study criticizes US intelligence-gathering in Iraq, Korea, and Iran. It suggests 74 changes.
WASHINGTON — Four-and-a-half years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the US intelligence community remains in many ways a bureaucracy in chaos.
The CIA, the FBI, and other agencies involved in espionage and intelligence analysis are still adjusting to such major changes as the the new National Counterterrorism Center. As yet, there's no new director of national intelligence in place - nominee John Negroponte's Senate confirmation hearings don't begin until later this month.
And now forceful criticism from a new source is stirring the intelligence pot again. A presidential commission on Thursday outlined 74 more changes for a community it says knows "disturbingly little" about the threats facing the country.
Has the push for reform become counterproductive? Not yet, say some experts. But they caution that improving intelligence may require more patience on Washington's part. "Thinking we're going to do a lot better soon is just unrealistic," says Gregory Treverton, an intelligence expert at RAND Corp.
The latest panel to offer its say on US intelligence is officially known as the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Headed by Senior US Appeals Court Judge Laurence Silberman and former Sen. Charles Robb (D) of Virginia,
it was appointed by President Bush in February 2004.
The panel's report is harsh in its judgment of the performance of US intelligence prior to the war in Iraq, saying it was "dead wrong" in most of its judgments regarding Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction.
Implicitly, the report absolves the administration of politicizing intelligence prior to the war, saying that CIA briefers told the White House "what they believed."
The panel also studied current US intelligence about the WMD programs of North Korea and Iran, among others. While the unclassified version of its report says little about this subject, a cover letter addressed to Mr. Bush states that "the bad news is that we still know disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries."
The good news is that there have been some recent WMD intelligence successes, notes the report, such as the exposure of the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan's clandestine nuclear supply network.
"We must work to replicate these successes in other areas," said Bush at a Thursday press appearance.
In its 600-page report the Silberman-Robb Commission calls for 74 changes, most of which can be implemented without legislation. The most important, according to the report, include:
• Give the Director of National Intelligence powers - and backing - to match his responsibilities. The report points out that the final version of the legislation that established this position, passed and signed into law this past December, watered down the DNI's abilities.
• Bring the FBI all the way into the intelligence community. The report recommends pulling all the bureau's intelligence capabilities into one place, a National Security Service inside the FBI, much like Britain's MI5, and under the direction of the DNI.
• Demand more of the intelligence community. "Analysts must be pressed to explain how much they don't know," the report states. "Collection agencies must be pressed to explain why they don't have better information on key topics.
• Establish a National Counter Proliferation Center. This would be similar to the National Counterterrorism Center, recommended by the 9/11 Commission, which is already up and running. It combines operatives and analysts from all 15 intelligence agencies and focuses them on one threat.
To be sure, the CIA has made great strides since the 9/11 attacks. The National Counterterrorism Center, for instance, is delivering daily threat assessments to the president and other policymakers. Internally, the CIA has worked to rebuild its human intelligence capabilities
Moreover, it has put in place new measures to challenge the "group think" mentality of its analysts, criticized by the Senate panel for faulty intelligence on about Iraq's WMD, as well as the new Silberman-Robb Commission.
Many inside the agency see the repeated criticisms and recommendations of these reports (six now) as piling on. And they are feeling leaderless. They don't know if current director Porter Goss will stay, or how the agency will be carved up when Mr. Negroponte takes up his post.
Some complain about the perceived heavy handedness of the "Gosslings," their name for former Congressional staffers Goss brought with him to the agency.
Morale is a concern. Mr. Goss sent a message to CIA employees last Friday giving them a heads up about the report released Thursday, telling them that it would be tough, but that they were on the right track with reforms already made.
But Michael Scheuer, a former senior analyst in the counterterror section, says many of his former colleagues are filled with angst about the future.
"I think on the whole they're less effective than before because of the degree of uncertainty," says Mr. Scheuer.
Still, there's much to be done. Intelligence officials and experts agree that CIA analysts, especially, spend too much time on minute detail and too little on strategic planning. With the terror group Hizbullah, for instance, the CIA has a specialist on its military, its communications, its political as well as its charitable services. But it doesn't have someone able to articulate the "big picture" capabilities and long-term intentions of the group.