Reforming U.S. intelligence operations is a work in progress. The overlapping jurisdictions, disputed priorities, and feuding bureaucracies of the fifteen agencies that officially make up the American intelligence community became tragically apparent on September 11, 2001. The system misfired again, for reasons still subject to heated debate, in its overestimation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) ahead of the war in Iraq. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Paul Pillar, the CIA's former senior intelligence official for the Middle East and South Asia, says "the most serious problem with U.S. intelligence today is that its relationship with the policymaking process is broken and badly needs repair."
These twin intelligence debacles led directly to the decision to appoint John Negroponte, a former ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, as the first-ever director of national Intelligence (DNI). On Tuesday, Negroponte and his military counterpart, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, spoke on the current threat facing the United States before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Both men warned of increasing violence directed at U.S. troops abroad (AP) as well as continuing plans by al-Qaeda to strike at the U.S. mainland (PhillyDailyNews). He also outlined threats posed by nuclear-armed rivals in Asia.
Negroponte's central role in ushering reforms through this huge bureaucracy is enshrined in the legislation that created his job, the National Intelligence Reform and Surveillance Act of 2004. President Bush called it "the most dramatic reform of our nation's intelligence capabilities since President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947." The act gave the DNI wide leeway to assign budget levels, and a subsequent executive order made it clear that "stovepiping," the segregating of certain information within one intelligence agency, would no longer be tolerated.
That, at least, is the theory. In practice, reforming a single bureaucracy is difficult enough. Reforming fifteen different agencies, each reporting directly to cabinet-level officials with their own priorities for intelligence collection, is daunting. While the national intelligence director oversees policy, the fact remains only dotted lines connect the DNI to many of the intelligence community's sub-agencies. As the New York Times notes, there is serious disagreement within the intelligence community about the effectiveness of moves taken so far. Negroponte faced pointed questions on this count last week during a public Q&A session at Georgetown University. The DNI was peppered with questions from intelligence community insiders who complained about lingering bureaucratic firewalls preventing smooth sharing of information between agencies, one of the most serious flaws identified by the 9/11 Commission.
Negroponte has acknowledged the challenges but insists progress is being made. He appointed a former head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Thomas Finger, as an analytic ombudsman to ward off politicization of data. Separately, the Republican Policy Council, an arm of the national party, issued a detailed rebuttal of "allegations for which there is no support" regarding the manipulation of pre-Iraq War intelligence.