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The Uneven Path Toward Intelligence Reform

Author: Eben Kaplan
September 11, 2007


In discussing the “war on terror” at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Michael V. Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), said, “It’s an intelligence war more than it’s a military one.” Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies have figured prominently in the post-9/11 national security paradigm, but have also shouldered much of the blame for their failure to the nation before the 9/11 attacks. A recently declassified CIA report details these shortcomings. The 2005 report (PDF) of the Weapons of Mass Destruction commission details additional mistakes made in the run-up to the Iraq war, while making a number of suggestions to improve U.S. intelligence agencies. The past six years have seen numerous efforts to reform the United States’ sometimes disparate intelligence community—including the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—but experts say many of the old problems remain.

One area of frustration for the U.S. intelligence community is Osama bin Laden, whose appearance in a new video (BBC) serves as a reminder that the al-Qaeda leader remains at large, plotting future attacks against the nation. The CIA disbanded its unit devoted to tracking bin Laden in 2006, a move Michael Scheuer, the former CIA agent who founded the unit, calls “a crazy decision” that was made for purely bureaucratic reasons.

More importantly, much of the bureaucracy that led to the “stovepiping (New Yorker)” of intelligence still lingers. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell pledges to overhaul the nation’s sixteen different intelligence agencies so that they function collaboratively, similar to the “joint” structure of the four branches of the U.S. military. To this end, NPR reports that new recruits for the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), CIA, and other agencies have begun training together. In April, McConnell released a 100-Day Plan (PDF) to improve integration and collaboration among the intelligence community. During a subsequent visit to CFR, McConnell expressed his displeasure with security clearances for new employees that take up to a year to complete. Retired Air Force General John Casciano outlines his own ideas (GovExec) for fixing this process.

According to CFR’s Steven Simon, a former National Security Council counterterrorism official, many of the institutional problems that prevented intelligence sharing before 9/11 “have reasserted themselves.” As this Backgrounder explains, some experts perceive a set of broader cultural issues that continues to plague the intelligence community. State governments have attempted to take up the intelligence-sharing mantle by creating “fusion centers,” intelligence hubs designed to bring together state and federal agencies under one roof, but a recent Congressional Research Service report provides a damning assessment of their efficacy.

Yet intelligence officials consider the absence of a major attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 a confirmation of their good work. “America hasn’t just been lucky,” Hayden told his CFR audience last week, “and it isn’t as if the terrorists have been lazy or just aren’t trying.”

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