Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading expert on intelligence, says President Bush wisely declined to embrace all of the 9/11 Commission’s proposals for intelligence reform. Bush’s call for a new director of national intelligence (DNI) was “a compromise between taking the kind of action that would show that intelligence reform was under way and overreacting to the 9/11 report, which provides almost no detail, no specific plans, and no rationale for most of its recommendations.” Cordesman says it is “irresponsible” for politicians like Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry to call for quick approval of all the commission’s recommendations without proper study by Congress.
Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He was interviewed on August 3, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org.
President Bush said on Monday that he supports the idea of a new director of national intelligence, a new intelligence “czar”...
Let me interrupt. Nobody has said this new intelligence director is going to be an intelligence “czar,” in terms of defining any of the powers he is going to have. This is particularly true in terms of tasking and budget control. So until you see a presidential directive, I would be very careful about using the word “czar.”
What then has the president proposed?
He compromised between taking the kind of action that would show that intelligence reform was under way and overreacting to the 9/11 report, which provides almost no detail, no specific plans, and no rationale for most of its recommendations. What Bush did, effectively, was to say that there would be a new national intelligence director and that this new person would be his principal adviser and would be separate from the director of the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. He talked about an office that would combine domestic and foreign intelligence in terms of coordination, but he did not really go beyond that to try to define specific roles. He talked about creating a national counterterrorism center in this office, but he also talked about building on the work done since 9/11 within the CIA. Much of this would presumably consist of transferring a component of the CIA to the new DNI. But he was careful to note something the 9/11 Commission did not consider at all— that there are many, many more uses of intelligence than just counterterrorism. So he pointed out that it might well be necessary to have a similar center to deal with issues like proliferation.
He also wisely, I think, talked about endorsing the recommendations of the commission in some areas, but provided no details as to which he would endorse, the timing, or how [the recommendations] would be implemented. Given the fact that the commission report basically provides no details as to what these recommendations mean in terms of staffing, costs, procedures, information technology, or any of the other steps necessary to implement them, the president has effectively left most issues open.
Is this good or bad? Is this now open for discussion with Congress? It will take some time to put together a plan.
That is one of the key issues. Nothing could have been worse or more impractical than calling Congress back to essentially try to vote on legislation to implement recommendations that have no details and no specifics. I think one of the great problems people face is that politicians rushed to join the bandwagon, effectively endorsing chapters 12 and 13 of this report. But they could not possibly have bothered to read what they were endorsing. Nobody in Congress with any experience is going to endorse a generalized recommendation for organizational change without any specifics, without any knowledge of the cost or the effectiveness, or even, because this is the major failing of the report, any knowledge of what has been done since 9/11 to try to fix the problems exposed in the commission report.
Are you implying that Senator John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was premature in endorsing the report’s recommendations?
In fairness to Senator Kerry, there were many people in both parties who rushed out to gain political visibility and do the same thing. But it isn’t a matter of being premature; it is a matter of being totally irresponsible to think that you can rush Congress back to pass legislation when you haven’t the faintest idea of what it means, when most of the recommendations have never been reviewed or commented on by the intelligence community, and nobody has any idea of the staffing requirements or costs.
There has been some criticism that the president, by declining to give the DNI control over the government’s intelligence budget, has made the job meaningless. Is this criticism premature?
I think it is. The president has to consider some very real problems. Most of the intelligence budget goes to what are called “national technical means” [such as photo and communications satellites]. These are extremely sophisticated high-technology systems. Almost all of the planning and development of these systems occurs in the Defense Department [DOD]. They are designed to be integrated into an overall command-and-control system for military crisis management and war fighting. Now, when you reach budget decisions you have to have a budget structure where both the new DNI and the DOD can play the proper roles in budget review, and where there is programming authority and a programming staff to look beyond the current annual requirement to the overall needs for intelligence and how they fit into our command-and-control and communications systems.
Again, one of the great problems in the commission report is that it looked at exactly one issue— counterterrorism— and none of the others. But [U.S.] intelligence users consist of more than 1 million people, many of them in uniform, and when you talk about budgeting and programming authority, you have to consider that. The other difficulty is that at some point— and it will have to be very quick, if the new DNI is given budget authority— the [current] archaic and outdated budget system, which has many different elements and information systems, is going to have to be integrated and converted into a more modern system. You cannot simply wave a magic wand and tell somebody how to create a system that can manage what is certainly more than $20 billion a year.
I’m not quite sure where you come out on this. Do you think the new DNI should have overall budget authority, or should he just be a coordinator with the existing agencies?
I think, like almost every recommendation in the commission report, that is something that requires study and the creation of some clear planning system. I think the DNI has to have programming capabilities, budget review, and budget authority. But he is not the only person who has to be involved in the process. And the DOD is still going to be the primary office in charge of integrating, developing, and reviewing most of this budget. In fact, if you look at the commission report, one of the problems— which is typical— is there is no description of any of these issues. The president is going to have to study this and reach a decision. All of the people who talk about how this should be implemented instantly, without any study or planning, have absolutely no idea of what they are talking about or what they mean when they say it.
You are not happy with the overall conclusions of the report?
One needs to be very careful. Many of these conclusions are probably very valuable. But this is a 13-chapter report. Eleven chapters are a masterful description of what happened and what went wrong that led to the 9/11 attack. There is no chapter that explains what people did after 9/11. There is no chapter that qualifies that this is only one of many problems in intelligence and intelligence reform.
The last two chapters effectively describe changes in an organizational chart and make very broad recommendations. Anybody who bothers to read them, which tends to be a remarkably few people who are commenting on the report, realizes that you can’t solve problems when you don’t know what you are saying in terms of staff, costs, operating systems, and other details. This is critical because, among other things, when you look through that report, you see vague recommendations about getting rid of the causes of terrorism or about dealing with issues like Islamic extremism or improving the quality of the CIA, which are among the most important recommendations you could make. And then you suddenly realize that this is a paragraph of generalities or cliches with absolutely no operating content at all.
To do its job properly, the commission needed at least several more months. It needed to actually create useful plans. And at some point, there needs to be a commission, or somebody, who looks at the overall needs of the intelligence community and doesn’t make counterterrorism effectively the only function of the intelligence community.
Who would be the ideal DNI?
The answer to that is no one. You are asking who is the perfect person to tie together collection and analysis for the entire world, looking at today’s issues and indefinitely into the future, and then communicate them perfectly to all the possible users, from the president on down. That person clearly does not exist. But whoever does do it has to have vast experience in actually managing the intelligence community, in knowing how to allocate resources, looking at the overall complexity of this issue. One of the great weaknesses in the new system is the same weakness of the old system: The same person is supposed to create an effective structure to manage a global intelligence system, which costs more than $20 billion a year, and then be the ideal personal intelligence adviser to the president. I’m not sure that, quite apart from the perfect person, one person can do those functions. But again, that question is not addressed in the 9/11 report.