Spying Under One Roof
US needs one intelligence chief - with clout
Before Washington moves too quickly to bring the nation's intelligence agencies under the command of one person, let's first decide not to call that person the "intelligence czar."
The US does not need another drug-czar-style figure with not enough power to effect change. But, as the 9/11 Commission is expected to recommend in its final report Thursday - and as previous blue-ribbon panels and now legislation in Congress endorse - the country does need an authoritative leader to manage the federal government's 15 intelligence operations.
One of the most serious intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was the lack of communication and follow-up within the US intelligence community, the commission has found.
Risks abound for vital information to fall through the cracks, because the intelligence gathering is so dispersed: There are nine such operations at the Department of Defense, plus intelligence functions at the State Department, US Treasury, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, and, of course, the CIA.
Centralizing intelligence operations under a single director is not a panacea for the troubles identified by the 9/11 Commission, or earlier this month, by the Senate's report on the lead-up to the Iraq war. But many lawmakers and experts in this specialized community have been calling for decades for the corralling of the myriad agencies. They point to major misjudgments (for instance, of Soviet military strength and plans), and big misses (not detecting India's 1998 detonation of a nuclear bomb) as evidence for needed reform that pre-dates 9/11.
Arguments against a Cabinet-level director of national intelligence are being made, including from the just-resigned director of the CIA, George Tenet. His chief concern is that some overarching leader or department will add another layer of bureaucracy to an already unwieldy system.
He voices a legitimate concern, which argues for not following the model of creating a new department like that of Homeland Security - best known for its confusing color-coded terrorism alert system.
Neither should Washington embrace the idea of a Cabinet-level position. That puts intelligence into the policymaking realm, when its real purpose is to provide unbiased information to policy- and decision-makers like the president.
Creating a lean-staffed, yet empowered director of national security is not an impossibility, however, and the natural place to look for this centralization is the CIA (as in "Central" Intelligence Agency). President Truman wanted such an agency for one-stop intelligence shopping.
But how can the CIA director, who is already tasked with coordinating intelligence efforts across the government, do this job without budgetary and personnel authority?
He may try to harmonize efforts at the various agencies, but the Pentagon controls about 80 percent of the country's estimated $40 billion intelligence budget. At the same time, the CIA chief has no hiring or firing authority over the heads of these agencies. In other words, he has no power to back up his coordinating efforts.
Get ready for the sound of breaking porcelain, because if this necessary transfer of power is ever given to the CIA chief - or a newly created director of national intelligence above him or her - a lot of china is going to get broken, as Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst in Iraq told this newspaper earlier this week.
Strong resistance should not stop this overdue reform, though hopes shouldn't be raised that an empowered director of national intelligence means an instant improvement in intelligence. That itself is an art as much as a science, and depends on the quality of experts in the lower ranks, the number of them, and the leaders who motivate and guide them.
For too long, promotion within the intelligence services has been based on short-term results, not on the long-term effort required to recruit informants and look for patterns.
A national intelligence leader can set the tone and direction to make these changes. American's intelligence agencies need a common leader. They, and the public, need to know that the buck stops at a single desk, and doesn't get lost on the way from one agency to another.