For homeland security, bring in the 'boffins'

President Bush's move to establish a supra-department for US homeland security is a positive one.

Melding under one umbrella the disparate and occasionally dysfunctional agencies responsible for protecting Americans at home – ranging from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Coast Guard, to the Secret Service, to the Customs Service and a multitude of others – is just the signal of seriousness and urgency the nation needs as it gears up for a long and challenging war against terrorism. A couple of things have to happen.

First, the integration of these agencies under new management has to be swift and seamless – no easy task when orchestrating the biggest government shakeup in half a century. But this is wartime, and though some egos and comfort levels may get battered, it can be done. When the US was called upon to transform its peacetime economy to wartime production in World War II, it was carried out with imagination and speed.

Second, especially in light of its size, the new department must have a high degree of accountability to the president, to Congress, and to the public. It must be accountable in terms of performance; able to anticipate, identify, and prevent threats to the nation without lapsing into bureaucratic lethargy. It must also convince Americans that it can operate under sensible wartime security provisions without trampling on the citizen rights that are the cornerstone of America's freedoms.

Good intelligence about the terrorists' tactics and plans is the key to homeland defense and waging war against them abroad. If the president's plan for the new homeland defense department is fulfilled, there will be three major entities engaged in the evaluation and use of this intelligence: the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, and the FBI.

In the investigations into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence warnings, the performance of both the CIA and FBI is under keen scrutiny. What is emerging so far is not a lack of intelligence, but a superabundance of it that has swamped particularly the FBI and underlined a deficiency in skilled analysis, a lack of coordination with other agencies, and an astounding ignorance of the enemy and his mode of operation.

What the US seems to need as it mobilizes for this new kind of warfare is an elite group of "boffins," as the British would call them – experts in the language and culture of the foe, sifting the cream of the intelligence product, fitting fragments together, pondering the mind of the enemy, and successfully anticipating his moves.

I am indebted to a reader of this column, Hope Jeter, for leading me to "Code Breakers," the story of Bletchley Park, in a book by F.H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp. Bletchley Park was the top-secret World War II installation in the English countryside, manned by a variety of sometimes eccentric Oxford and Cambridge dons, classical scholars and historians, some international chess players, a few journalists, and a variety of military personnel.

They cracked German (and later Japanese) military codes, read the intercepts, pieced together nuggets of information, deduced what enemy movements and plans might be, and funneled this critical information to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and top military leaders for formulation of countermeasures.

At the beginning of the war, the Victorian mansion at Bletchley housed little more than a hundred of these intelligence specialists, but by war's end they numbered some 7,000.

Throughout the war, they worked three shifts a day, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight, and midnight to 8 a.m., with one week's vacation a year. They were sworn to secrecy, and the operation was unknown to the public until many years after the war. During wartime, security was so tight that Churchill invented fictitious agents and sources when passing on its product to even his closest allies. He credited the work of Bletchley Park as critical in winning the war.

One of the specialists there, William Millward, later brushed aside the fictitious spy-master's world of Fleming and Le Carre and described the process as that of "the intellectual sitting quietly and consuming his ounce of shag (tobacco). It means reviewing known facts, sorting out significant from insignificant, arriving at a conclusion by judgment: part induction, part deduction. It is not ideal, since the process is as much synthesis as analysis."

Perhaps somewhere amid the reorganization of the US intelligence community there is a place for a replication of Bletchley Park's "boffins."

• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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