WASHINGTON — The nation was thrown into a bad case of the jitters last week as the government raised the terrorist threat level to orange - or high risk - and as Osama bin Laden was heard again on audiotape encouraging new attacks. Until then, the war on terrorism looked as if it were going well with no attacks on US soil in over a year.
But Al Qaeda is by no means out of business. These terrorists are patient people - the planning of Sept. 11 took several years. The first-priority challenge today, then, is to be able to anticipate the terrorists sufficiently to keep them off US soil. That means being on the offensive.
And essential to this offensive is superior intelligence. There are encouraging signs that US intelligence is good: Witness the capture of several high-ranking Al Qaeda officials and the bombing in Yemen of a car loaded with Al Qaeda operatives. But there are also signs of disquiet: Witness the recent report of a joint congressional committee that investigated the performance of US intelligence agencies prior to Sept. 11. It confirmed a lack of adequate communication among the 14 intelligence agencies that make up our intelligence community. None of us who have been associated with US intelligence were at all surprised that these agencies would place their parochial interests above those of the nation.
Such inexcusably faulty performance cannot be risked again. All that has been done since Sept. 11 is official exhortation to correct the situation. The new Homeland Security Bill does nothing to straighten this out. The joint congressional committee has two recommendations. The first is to separate the office of the head of the CIA from the office of the director of central intelligence (DCI), which is responsible for coordination of the 14 intelligence agencies. These two positions are, by law, presently vested in one person. The second recommendation is to empower the DCI (renamed Director of National Intelligence - DNI) to enforce the needed coordination.
It is only common sense that when intelligence activities - costing something like $35 billion a year - are spread across 14 semiautonomous agencies, some single individual ought to be placed in charge.
But this battle over empowering the DCI/DNI has been waged ever since that office was created in 1947. The DCI has been kept weak largely at the behest of the Department of Defense. During the cold war that was understandable. The primary threat to the nation was a military one, and superior intelligence is very important to success on the battlefield. However, the battlefield has changed. The primary threat to the US is terrorism - a threat to which the military is only a partial answer.
But subordinating military intelligence requirements to those of the DNI will not be an easy task for the president. He could rather easily merge 22 nondescript agencies with little congressional or public interest in them into the new Department of Homeland Security. Tampering with the Department of Defense will be another matter. It will put the president to a test as to whether defeating terrorists is truly the nation's No. 1 priority. Even should someone argue that empowering the DNI would not accomplish the coordination required, it is difficult to argue that it would hurt the national interest in the post-cold-war world.
Empowering the DNI is not all that is needed to ensure a smoothly functioning intelligence community. That community of 14 agencies is unnecessarily large and unwieldy. It should be drastically reduced in size so as to encourage greater exchange of highly sensitive data and close teamwork.
The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard all need their own tactical intelligence functions, but do not need to be part of the larger, strategic intelligence community - nor do the Treasury Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency. There is also a real disadvantage of having these agencies - which see the world from a parochial viewpoint - involved in the strategic intelligence process. They seldom contribute meaningfully to such discussions as interpretation of intelligence data. All these agencies do have input they can make to our intelligence databases, but there are other federal and state agencies that also should have input, such as Immigration, Customs, and the Border Patrol.
There are, then, seven agencies that should be hived off the intelligence community. The remaining seven would all have more of a national outlook: the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The demands of this hour on America call for a willingness to change even cherished institutions. Some will suggest waiting for the next investigation of what went wrong prior to Sept. 11. That, though, is not scheduled to be completed for another 18 months.
Although we have weathered 16 months since Sept. 11, the risks of complacency and of doing business as usual are just too severe.
• Adm. Stansfield Turner, former director of central intelligence, is on the faculty of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland.