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Gates: Roberts' Proposal To Reform the CIA Would Be a 'Catastrophe'

Interviewee: Robert M. Gates
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 24, 2004

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Robert M. Gates, the only Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official to rise from an entry-level job to director of central intelligence (DCI), has harsh words for Republican Senator Pat Roberts’ proposal to overhaul the nation’s intelligence agencies. Roberts’ plan, which would divide CIA functions among a handful of new agencies, would be “a catastrophe,” Gates says. “I think of all the proposals, his is the nuttiest.”

For Gates, the key to intelligence reform is granting budgetary authority to a single individual, either the head of the CIA or the national intelligence czar endorsed by the 9/11 Commission. If a national director of intelligence (NDI) is established, Gates says a tight connection between the NDI and the CIA is critical. “If you are going to have a national intelligence director, first of all, give him a deputy for CIA, so the national intelligence director is not institutionally or operationally divorced from CIA. You don’t want the guy who reports to the president not to be the guy directly in charge of those running covert operations, sensitive human intelligence, and the principal analytical function of the community.”

Gates, the president of Texas A&M University and the co-chair of an independent task force on Iran sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on August 24, 2004.


Have you ever seen the CIA the target of so much political criticism?

I don’t think it’s ever been the focus of such dramatic proposals to dismantle it or change its structure so significantly. It certainly was under tremendous pressure in the ’74-’75 period [when it was the subject of congressional hearings], but there was a lot of support [for the CIA] then from President Ford. I don’t think the CIA was ever at risk, structurally, in the way [it] is now.

What do you think about the proposal of the 9/11 Commission that there should be a national director of intelligence?

I prepared some testimony for [Senator] Susan Collins [R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Committee on] Governmental Affairs on the 9/11 Commission recommendations. The brief version is: I think they’ve come up with a set of proposals that is likely to end up in a weaker director, or head of national intelligence, than a stronger one and a structure that probably won’t work in practice.

The idea of a stronger head of national intelligence is a good one. It’s been bumping around for a long time, and it always crashes against the shoals of budget authority. The question is, what is the ability of the head of intelligence to execute the program for which he has been given responsibility? You have the National Foreign Intelligence Program, which has existed as an entity and involves specific parts and specific agencies, and you have the Joint Military Intelligence Program. I don’t think you have to give control or ownership of NSA [National Security Agency] or NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] or NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] and others to the DCI or NDI or whatever you call him. If you give him the budgetary authority to move money and people within those programs— the National Foreign Intelligence Program and the Joint Military Intelligence Program— if he can align resources to priorities, he can manage the program. That’s what he can’t do today.

In other words, the DCI is currently vested with overall authority over intelligence agencies but doesn’t have the power to set budget priorities, particularly in the Pentagon?

[He lacks the authority] to actually manage the program he’s responsible for. I’ll give you a simple example. If the head of intelligence decided that the Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] should no longer do economic intelligence, that those resources were needed on a higher-priority program, he could not [make that bureaucratic change].

Because the Pentagon does not have to listen to his recommendations?

Exactly. And if he said— “The Defense Intelligence Agency will be totally responsible for third-world order of battle; CIA won’t do that any more. To help DIA do that, I’m going to transfer 15 positions from CIA to DIA”--he can’t do that.

Even though he’s in charge of the CIA?

[But] he’s not in charge of DIA.

You would give budgetary authority to the DCI?

Right.

How does that differ from the 9/11 Commission proposals for a national director of intelligence?

They have a different conception of it. They separate the national intelligence director from CIA, which I think is a bad idea, but they would basically give him the authority to manage [the intelligence community]. [While] their goal is to give him the authority to manage it, what they’ve recommended does not do that.

Why is that?

For one thing, what we were just talking about involves the authority to reprogram. The [commission] proposal only allows for a reprogramming if there is a new priority. It’s very specific. It doesn’t give [the national intelligence director the] authority to make the system more efficient or to align existing resources to deal with existing priorities.

You’d rather strengthen the hand of the current DCI over the other intelligence agencies?

My suggestion is: if you are going to have a national intelligence director, first of all, give him a deputy for CIA, so the national intelligence director is not institutionally or operationally divorced from CIA. You don’t want the guy who reports to the president not to be the guy directly in charge of those running covert operations, sensitive human intelligence, and the principal analytical function of the community.

What do you think of Senator Roberts’ proposal essentially to break up the CIA?

I think of all the proposals, his is the nuttiest. One of the great achievements of the last 18 years has been bringing the analytical side of the CIA closer to support of operations. [That] really started in 1986 with the creation of the Counterterrorist Center, where instead of [having analysts] writing think pieces on terrorism for policy-makers, we moved a lot of analytical resources into the Counterterrorist Center where they used those analytical capabilities to actually inform and guide and help prepare operations against terrorists. Roberts want to rip all that apart, send [the units] back in their separate directions. And to work for whom? That’s not clear either.

He says they will work for the new national intelligence director.

Who’s going to have six or seven stovepipe agencies instead of three or four.

Will Roberts’ plan weaken intelligence capabilities?

I think it would be a catastrophe.

George Tenet[DCI in 1997-2004] clearly agrees with you. Is there anyone in the intelligence community who doesn’t?

I doubt it.

What do you think provoked Roberts?

First of all, he was very critical of the agency on the Iraq business, so I think there’s no love lost there. But I don’t know what his motives are. I’m always a little skeptical when a politician surfaces a serious proposal on a Sunday morning talk show.

And without discussing it with any of his Democratic colleagues or the White House.

Exactly.

The White House’s position seems ambivalent. Administration officials seem to want to wait and see what everybody has to say.

I think George Tenet got it right in his statement yesterday. I think everybody’s sort of motivated by the fear of being attacked politically, rather than just saying, “Let’s gather all these ideas and sit down after the election and figure out what the smart thing to do is.”

Do you object to the commission’s proposal to make public the total budget for intelligence?

No. Tenet already did that in the 1990s. I mean, you’d have to be living in a cave to not have a general idea of what we spend on intelligence.

What is your judgment of the CIA’s record on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction? Was the agency at fault, or were analysts and officials pushed into false assessments because of political pressure?

I don’t think they were pushed into it. I think they did kind of a sloppy estimate. I think they were not as forthright as they needed to be about the quality and reliability and currency of their sources. And I gather that early drafts had a lot of caveats that dealt with some of those issues but, as subsequent drafts and the executive summary came along, a lot of those qualifiers and expressions of caution dropped by the wayside. I don’t think it was because of pressure; I think it was just sloppy work. But I do believe that they believed that there were weapons of mass destruction there, because almost every intelligence service in the world believed they were there.

The White House throughout the ’90s believed it, certainly.

Hell, even the French believed it. That’s the reason why everybody voted for Resolution 1441. That was designed to give the inspectors more time to go in and find the weapons of mass destruction.

If you had to do it again, would you have given the inspectors more time?

Being out of government and not knowing exactly what they knew at the time, it’s hard to say. You know, the argument we heard as a constant refrain in 1990 was, “Give sanctions more time,” and we knew perfectly well that more time wasn’t going to work when it came to getting Saddam out of Kuwait. My view is that we had so many inspectors in there and enough forces in the region to back up the inspectors that we sort of had Saddam pinned down, in terms of his ability to do something fairly far-reaching with weapons of mass destruction.

Do you have any predictions as to how Iraq is going to turn out?

No. We have the old line in the intelligence business that everything we want to know is divided into two categories: secrets and mysteries.

And Iraq is which?

Iraq is very much the latter.