Systemic reform of US intelligence may - repeat, may - be something whose time has come.
For decades the CIA and other national intelligence agencies have periodically drawn scrutiny for perceived shortcomings. At times the spotlight has been followed by bureaucratic shake-up. But Langley's spies, the analysts of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other US intelligence personnel have avoided some of the largest suggested changes, such as the establishment of a more powerful national intelligence director.
This time, change at the top might happen. The 9/11 commission is set to recommend a new structure of control for US intelligence - and panel members have vowed to keep pushing. In an election year both President Bush and presumptive challenger John Kerry may find it hard to oppose them, given the commission's revelations about pre-Sept. 11 intelligence stumbles.
"These commissions go back 40 years or so, and almost all come up with the same conclusion," says former Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner. "In this instance we have a convergence."
Undoubtedly some recent criticism of the performance of US intelligence is unfair. Agents and analysts provide disciplined estimates - not magic. US policymakers will always have to make crucial security decisions based on uncertain information about adversary intentions.
Moreover, some of the intelligence community's most crucial misestimates prior to Sept. 11 were widely shared. As Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon has noted, most European and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies believed that Saddam Hussein had continued to work on biological and chemical weapons following his defeat in the first Gulf War.
But both the Senate Intelligence Committee report released this month, and 9/11 commission staff reports, have documented numerous instances in which miscommunication, bureaucratic wrangling, or sheer ineptitude hampered the nation's antiterror efforts before the fall of 2001.
For instance, one 9/11 panel staff study notes that at one point a CIA analyst passed along to the FBI office in New York the name of a suspected Al Qaeda operative with a US visa, to see whether that person was still in the US. No one followed up - and the US missed a chance to find Sept. 11 hijacker Khalid al-Midhar, who was indeed in the country.
Now the 9/11 panel, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, is set to release its final report Thursday. Panelists and staff members have long hinted at what one of the report's main recommendations will be: establishment of a national intelligence director, on the level of a Cabinet officer, who has budget authority over the CIA, the DIA, and all other intelligence arms.
The panel will also almost certainly urge greater development of human intelligence sources, and in general greater cooperation among the nation's intelligence personnel. These are all points many experts have long supported. "We need a whole new intelligence architecture," agrees Richard Shultz, an international security expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.
Still, change won't be easy to come by. As Mr. Shultz points out, beefing up human intelligence will likely require that the CIA drop certain requirements on the nature of intelligence assets. By necessity that would involve dealing with more unsavory characters. "Advertising in The Economist is not going to do it," he says.
But as former DCI Stansfield Turner points out, the establishment of a new, more powerful intelligence chief is not as revolutionary a change as some might think. To some extent, that position already exists.
By law the head of the CIA is also Director of Central Intelligence, with nominal authority over other agencies. During his years at the agency, Turner was given budget authority over the DIA and Pentagon intelligence arms, per order of President Carter. That authority was rescinded by the next chief executive, Ronald Reagan.
Thus the Bush White House would not have to wait for Congress to pass a law establishing a post above that of the current director, says Turner. The president could restore power to the DCI with a stroke of a pen. "That could be done with an executive order," he says.
To this point the White House has not taken a direct stand on the 9/11 panel's proposed changes. Officials have sounded a vaguely positive note - thus White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that Bush "is open to additional ideas."
But the reality is that budget authority equals power in Washington, and the Pentagon would be loath to cede budget authority over the DIA without a fight.
Such a battle "would break so much china I don't think it's going to happen," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst on Iraq. More logical changes, suggest Ms. Yaphe, might look at how functions are grouped within the CIA.