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Getting Smart on Intelligence Reform

Author: Greg Bruno
January 14, 2009


After eight years of controversy, some Democratic lawmakers and legal scholars seek a thorough investigation of the Bush administration's approach to intelligence gathering. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tells Newsweek pressure for an inquiry into interrogation practices is mounting. Yale law professor Jack M. Balkin, meanwhile, says the future of U.S. democracy depends on unearthing the truth (NYT). President-elect Barack Obama, for his part, has left open the door for a probe of the Bush years. "We have not made final decisions," he told ABC News. But Obama says he is intent on focusing on the future "as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past."

As the list of challenges (Reuters) awaiting him suggests, the future of intelligence reform will require Obama's undivided attention. Osama bin Laden remains free, concerns over Iranian nuclear ambitions are mounting, and non-state actors--al-Qaeda chief among them--continue to plot against the United States (PDF). But Obama will also be under pressure to reform an intelligence apparatus critics say has been plagued by poor leadership and a lack of cooperation. Specifically, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has come under fire. Created to address past intelligence failures as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, critics contend ODNI has instead micromanaged agencies and, in the case of overseas spy operations, sought to muscle in on turf (AP) historically belonging to the CIA. Former CIA acting deputy director of operations Jack Devine argues the creation of ODNI has failed to deliver (WashPost) on its promise of streamlining and reform. DNI officials, meanwhile, counter that the agency has improved collection and collaboration programs (PDF) during its four years in existence.

Some experts see even broader deficiencies. The consensus opinion (PDF) of the Project on National Security Reform (PSNR), a congressionally mandated oversight committee, suggests the next administration will need to dramatically reorient the nation's security structures away from the "singular, unambiguous" threats faced during the Cold War, to more "diffuse, ambiguous" challenges-everything from failed states to natural disasters. There are also lingering questions on intelligence sharing among agencies, fast-tracking security clearances, and attracting operatives with Arabic, Farsi, and other vital languages. Obama himself has called for the nation to "revisit intelligence reform" (Foreign Affairs) by adapting new strategies for gathering and using information.

The reaction to Obama's appointments of intelligence officials to date highlights the political sensitivities surrounding intelligence policy, and how it might be reshaped in a new administration. The nomination of former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta as head of CIA brought bewilderment from some Democratic party leaders, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Feinstein later softened her opposition, and outgoing agency head Gen. Michael Hayden endorsed his potential successor. But Panetta's confirmation is far from guaranteed (McClatchy). Obama's pick for director of national intelligence, retired Admiral Dennis C. Blair, appears less controversial (though some have questioned appointing a career military man to the post), as does Gen. James Jones (TIME), his pick for national security advisor. But the choice of John O. Brennan to serve as a top advisor on counterterrorism to the president is seen by some as an end-run (WashPost) around a potential fight in the Senate. After withdrawing his name for consideration as CIA head amid concern that past statements regarding interrogation tactics might hurt his chances, Obama tapped Brennan for a post that does not require confirmation.

Yet Obama will face challenges reforming intelligence no matter who surrounds him. Questions have already emerged (CQ) over one recommendation being considered-the potential merging of homeland and national security councils. Amendments to an intelligence directive inked by President Bush in July 2008 proposed a number of subtle changes to the intelligence community structure, including bolstering spending authority and giving ODNI the lead in setting mission priorities, deficiencies critics contend limited the agency's ability to lead the intelligence community. Those criticisms remain despite those changes. But despite calls by some Democratic members of Congress for possible prosecution of past offenses, there appears little political appetite for a whole-scale do-over of Washington's intelligence apparatus. Instead, many lawmakers say that when it comes to reform Obama's best option may be to build on the foundation already in place.


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