Nearly three years after Congress approved a sweeping reorganization of US intelligence agencies – including the establishment of a Director of National Intelligence – some lawmakers and experts outside government are wondering whether America's spy capabilities have improved as much as intended.
The intelligence community's new conclusion that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program represents a complete turnaround in judgment, critics point out. Meanwhile, the CIA's destruction of videotapes of interrogations of Al Qaeda suspects has raised an uproar in Washington and will undoubtedly lead to investigations of the agency's action.
Intelligence officials themselves say these news items show that their new structure is working. Improved collection methods and better analysis led them to reverse their conclusions about Iran, they say.
The destruction of the tapes appears to have occurred before the new hierarchy was fully established.
In terms of implementation of reform, "I think we would grade ourselves probably in the B- category," said Donald Kerr, principal deputy in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, at a Dec. 6 House hearing.
Following Sept. 11, a number of official investigations held that lack of coordination among intelligence agencies was one reason that the US government did not foresee and forestall the attacks. Per the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which President Bush signed into law on Dec. 17.
John Negroponte was the Bush's first pick for the intelligence czar post. In April 2005, Mr. Negroponte left to become second-in-command at the Department of State. The current Director of National Intelligence is retired Navy Adm. Mike McConnell.
Mr. McConnell is the chief of all 16 US intelligence agencies and is supposed to coordinate their work and analytic product. The head of the CIA – former DNI deputy Michael Hayden – reports to him.
Agency officials say the establishment of the DNI office has brought a needed rigor and centralization to US intelligence efforts. They point to moves such as the establishment of a National Counterterrorism Center to show how the intelligence community has broken out of its old mentality, which lacked interagency coordination.
"Because we now have a DNI, tasks are getting done and progress is being made .... Today we are delivering high quality, timely, often actionable intelligence to customers better than ever before," said Mr. Kerr at the House Intelligence panel hearing.
Some critics long have held that the establishment of a new layer of management does not automatically equal progress, however. And the abrupt reversal of course on Iran has surprised many lawmakers and experts in Washington. Whatever they think of the conclusion that Iran does not currently have a weapons program, they wonder about the suddenness of the move. What happened to change analysts' minds?
"I have to admit that the [National Intelligence Estimate] on Iran really started to raise questions for me about how well this new reorganization is working," says William Martel, an associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
Mr. Martel says he found the NIE to be something of a "political statement."
Others, however, feel that the Iran NIE shows that the new system is working. The fact that its conclusion is something of an embarrassment for the Bush administration, which has long pushed for a confrontational approach to Iran, shows that the DNI structure is capable of protecting intelligence work from White House influence, they say.
The Iran NIE contains more than 1,000 internal source notes, according to Kerr. It has not only benefited from better collection methods – news reports have cited communications intercepts, among other things – but also a larger set of analysts.
"This is probably one of the most well-sourced NIEs that has ever been produced," Kerr told the House.
Meanwhile, the news about the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes will likely lead to some sort of high-level probe, though by whom remains an open question.
Congress has already summoned CIA chief Hayden for closed hearings on the matter before both the House and Senate.
Reportedly, the tapes – documenting hundreds of hours of interrogation of at least two high-value alleged Al Qaeda detainees – were destroyed in November 2005, just as the office of the DNI was being established. The destruction also occurred after lawyers for Zacarias Moussaoui and Jose Padilla, two Al Qaeda suspects whose cases were transferred to civilian courts, had asked the government to turn over any interrogation videos in its possession.
"The timing is a little too convenient," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. Revelation of the tapes' existence could cause these cases to be reopened, he says.
"This is very messy as to ongoing and even pretty much completed cases," Mr. Tobias adds.
The Justice Department and the CIA's inspector general have started preliminary inquiries into the destruction of the tapes. Their work will determine if a full investigation is necessary, said Attorney General Michael Mukasey at a news conference Tuesday.
Mr. Mukasey declined to say whether an independent prosecutor would be necessary to get to the bottom of the matter. That question is "the most hypothetical of hypotheticals," he said.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.