Official alarm in Washington over the failure of US intelligence to predict India's May 11 nuclear test led Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to request an inquiry. Adm. David Jeremiah, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked to find out what happened and why.
Admiral Jeremiah found deep-seated systemic problems within the intelligence community that go far beyond the failure in India.
Jeremiah told reporters that the CIA had effectively no spies in India, that its ability to get information from people worldwide is weak, and that overworked analysts are overwhelmed by the amount of data from US spy satellites.
On India, he found, both administration policymakers and intelligence analysts who serve them had accepted an "underlying mind-set" that India would not test its nuclear weapons again. So they did not recognize the sea change when the new Hindu-nationalist government took office with a promise to deploy nuclear weapons. Consequently, US intelligence officials made no move to step up intelligence collection in anticipation of a test.
The CIA in particular needs more and better analysts and should bring in outside experts to give alternative analysis of major events, Jeremiah said. It also needs to break out of American thought patterns and be "much more aggressive in thinking through how the other guy thought."
Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, advocates a number of useful reforms. Among them:
* Give the director of central intelligence more authority to manage the whole intelligence community, spread over several agencies. Give the director control over the entire intelligence budget and more authority to select intelligence-agency directors.
* Create an assistant director of central intelligence for collection and another for analysis and production, subject to Senate confirmation. Right now, no one is in charge of coordinating the efforts of the various agencies: the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and others.
* Bring in outside analysts to review CIA operations, as businesses do when they find themselves in a rut.
* Strip some of the secrecy from the intelligence effort so that Americans know better what they are paying for. Begin by declassifying the Jeremiah report and continue by declassifying the annual intelligence budget.
To his credit, CIA Director Tenet has accepted Admiral Jeremiah's recommendations and will work to implement them. But as Senator Kerrey argues, administrative change is not enough. Legislation is needed to overcome the bureaucratic turf fights that have thwarted previous intelligence agency reform efforts.
The CIA was created to ensure that there would never be another Pearl Harbor. Now it must ensure that there is never another surprise nuclear blast. The ball is in Congress's court.