The New Politics of Intelligence: Will Reforms Work This Time?

Author: Richard K. Betts, Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
May/June
Foreign Affairs

The failure to prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, and the proliferation of official investigations trying to figure out what went wrong in both cases have combined to put intelligence issues in a very unusual position this year: at the center of a closely contested presidential campaign.

All the attention creates both an opportunity and a danger. The opportunity stems from the consensus that major reforms are necessary. Previous controversies over the quality of intelligence have generally been inside-the-Beltway debates leading to only minor reforms at best. That will probably be true this time as well. But if there were ever a moment when public demand might overcome the entrenched institutional interests that block radical change, this should be it.

The danger stems from the gap between the urge to do something and the uncertainty about just what that something should be -- as well as from the entanglement of intelligence and policy issues involved with the Iraq question in particular. Political points are scored by painting issues in broad swaths of black and white, but the real choices in this area are inevitably found among shades of gray, and ill-considered reforms could do more harm than good. At the end of the day, the strongest defense against intelligence mistakes will come less from any structural or procedural tweak than from the good sense, good character, and good mental habits of senior officials. How to assure a steady supply of those, unfortunately, has never been clear.

PROFESSIONALS AND POLITICIANS

In earlier cases when strategic intelligence has been a national political issue, the character of partisan alignments has generally kept the controversies within bounds. After Pearl Harbor, executive commissions and a congressional investigation revealed mistakes and charges of cover-ups that critics tried to use against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1944 election. By the time the full story came out, however, F.D.R. had died, the war had been won, and the country had moved on.

In the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy slammed the Eisenhower administration for allowing a "missile gap" favoring the Soviet Union to emerge, basing his claims on information that turned out to be wrong. (There was indeed a gap, but it favored the United States.) Once in power, however, Kennedy had nothing to gain from calling attention to his error, and the Republican opposition no longer had to defend the Eisenhower record, so the issue died.

In the mid-1970s, investigations by the presidential Rockefeller Commission, the Church Committee in the Senate, and the Pike Committee in the House splashed CIA and FBI misdeeds across national headlines. But the main controversies then were about covert operations and government abuses of civil liberties, rather than the accuracy of intelligence information and analysis. The lurid revelations of these committees tarred several administrations of both parties. The response to the scandals was a campaign aimed more at suppressing illegal abuses than at boosting the functional effectiveness of intelligence.

This time the one-two punch of terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq has spawned partisan tensions and a gaggle of official investigations. At the end of 2002, the congressional intelligence oversight committees reported jointly on their investigation of the September 11 attacks, after which a separate national "9/11 Commission" was established with Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Its work was delayed by sluggish executive branch compliance with requests for evidence, and attempts to extend its original deadline became a political football before finally being granted.

As for the mysteriously missing Iraqi WMD, in early 2004 members of the Senate intelligence committee found themselves fighting over whether to limit their investigation to mistakes made by intelligence producers (such as the CIA) or to also include mistakes made by intelligence consumers (that is, officials in the Bush administration). Then they argued about how strenuously to demand documents the White House wanted withheld. To contain the gathering storm, President George W. Bush was finally pushed into appointing a blue-ribbon commission to investigate intelligence performance, taking care to assure that its report will arrive well after the November presidential election.

In contrast to previous investigations that sought to rein in overzealous activism by intelligence agencies, the focus of today's overlapping inquiries is on how to get those agencies to be more aggressive -- and how to get policymakers to use the results to better effect. Better production and better use, however, are distinct issues. Those who want to score political points against the Bush administration have a natural incentive to emphasize the misuse of intelligence by the president and his political lieutenants, whereas those who want to get the administration off the hook have a natural incentive to blame the intelligence bureaucracy for failing to provide good information.

This leaves intelligence professionals squeezed uncomfortably in the middle. If they back up White House claims that presidential actions were correct, they risk being seen as administration toadies who will need to be put in their place when power changes hands. But if they defend themselves against the charge of misinforming their bosses by showing that they produced correct information that was then ignored or misrepresented, they alienate the people they work for and cripple their ability to function. With luck this political dynamic will wane before it can do much damage, but there is no way that it can be good for the intelligence professionals being buffeted in the search for accountability.

THE NEW POLITICIZATION?

Much of the debate over the recent mistakes has started from the assumption that major reforms are necessary to prevent similar embarrassments in the future. A number of specific improvements in collection, analysis, and sharing of information can be made, but they are not the dramatic structural shake-ups that slake the public thirst for solutions. No drastic change has been identified that will surely solve the problems that produced the disasters of the past few years.

The failure to intercept the September 11 hijackers focused attention on the question of what warnings, if any, the intelligence community provided beforehand about the possibility of such attacks. The most politically potent revelation has been the report that in August 2001 the President's Daily Brief (PDB) -- the super-sensitive digest of current intelligence presented to the president each morning -- warned that al Qaeda might strike using hijacked aircraft.

In truth, this should not necessarily be all that damning for the administration. During tense times, high officials are often flooded with inconclusive warnings of numerous potential dangers, generally without specific "actionable" information, discussion of the relative likelihood of various scenarios, or evidence about which ones are worth the diversion of scarce resources to counter. Given what happened a month later, however, the documentation of such a warning could be political dynamite. The White House refused to release the PDBs to the 9/11 Commission and insisted on restricting access to limited portions of the documents to only a few of the commission's members. (The White House claimed to base its stance on a disinterested concern for executive privilege, but critics pointed out that in the past, PDBs have often been shared with numerous people apart from the president.)

Even more controversial has been the questioning of the intelligence basis for the administration's unequivocal prewar claims that Saddam Hussein possessed stocks of chemical and biological WMD. Despite later administration spinning to the contrary, such claims were offered as the central warrant for war, and so their retrospective evaluation has become a battle over the administration's general credibility and competence.

Both before the war and after, intelligence professionals argued that they made the best estimates possible given the information available. What has been shocking is the revelation of how much the WMD claims rested on circumstantial evidence and analytical assumptions and how little on specific reliable data.

Nevertheless, circumstantial evidence and logical deductions prior to the war did indeed support the notion that Iraq had retained the chemical and biological weapons it possessed in 1991. Although any assertions to that effect would have had to be hedged and qualified, no sensible intelligence estimator could have concluded in 2002 that the Iraqis probably did not have WMD. Saddam's record in obstructing UN inspectors and lying throughout the cat-and-mouse inspection game of the 1990s made no apparent sense unless the Iraqis were continuing to hide the weapons.

After September 11, intelligence analysts were roundly blamed for not having used their knowledge and imagination to connect the dots about potential terrorist threats. It is unfair, then, to blame them for doing just that about the threats apparently posed by Baghdad's unconventional arsenal. Who is more to blame -- intelligence producers or policymakers -- depends on just how strongly stated the caveats about such conclusions were, given the limitations of the evidence in hand. But this cannot be judged in public until the relevant intelligence documents are fully declassified. In any case, it is a matter of nuances likely to be lost in the rough and tumble of political combat.

Another flap about the politicization of intelligence on Iraq involves the Defense Department's creation of the Office of Special Plans (OSP), which was designed to provide an independent review of raw intelligence and challenge the interpretations of the mainstream intelligence community. In principle there is nothing wrong with having intellectual gadflies offer second opinions on important topics, shine a light on overlooked possibilities, and question hidden assumptions. But critics charge that rather than helping to reduce the dangers of groupthink among senior officials, the new Pentagon office did the opposite by imposing ideological preconceptions on the interpretation of ambiguous information, "cherry picking" signs of preferred conclusions, harassing regular intelligence producers, and promoting dubious, sometimes even discredited, sources that supported the case for war.

To the extent that this occurred, it would certainly constitute an abuse of good procedure -- especially if it is true that, as critics have charged, the OSP's products were presented at the highest political level as if they had equal standing with the collectively agreed conclusion of the regular intelligence agencies. But legislation cannot control how policy discussions are managed, nor can it keep a presidential lieutenant from undercutting intelligence community procedures if the president wants to let him or her do so.

THE EMPTY CONSENSUS

All the talk of reform will lead nowhere unless it is translated into changes of structure and process. Unfortunately, however, non-experts find the details of such matters arcane or eye-glazing, while experts often disagree about what should be done.

Many professionals suffocating under the inertia of the sprawling intelligence bureaucracy think the community badly needs streamlining. They want to cut away layers and fences in order to make collection and analysis quicker and sharper and to catch up with the networked nature of twenty-first-century information systems. Since September 11, however, the public has wanted to maximize coverage of problems, which would bulk up the services rather than strip them down. And the message of dismay over mistaken estimates of Iraqi WMD is that analysis must be more careful and avoid jumping to conclusions -- which implies more checks, balances, and deliberation, along with the personnel and organizational complexity that will naturally accompany them.

The most specific proposals for major structural change have been those that would replace the director of central intelligence (DCI), who has coordinated the intelligence community since the National Security Act of 1947, with a new and stronger director of national intelligence (DNI). This new czar would give up the old post's second hat as CIA director in order to focus more intently on managing the entire intelligence community -- namely, the fifteen agencies that lie mostly in cabinet departments such as State, Treasury, Energy, and especially Defense. Some also want the DNI to be given more direct authority over all the various intelligence agencies themselves, a move that would radically reduce the role of the Pentagon (where about 80 percent of intelligence activities and budgets now lie).

Removing the directorship of the CIA from the DNI's job portfolio would be a much easier task politically than giving the DNI greater control over the departmental intelligence agencies. Without the latter, however, the former would be a step backward and would risk leading to the worst of both worlds -- a DNI who was weaker than the current DCI, instead of stronger.

Trying to wrest the National Security Agency and like agencies from the Defense Department, however, would leave Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue awash in blood, and even if the attempt succeeded, it would not yield all the promised gains in efficiency. The military services will never accept dependence on other departments for performance of their core functions, which include tactical intelligence collection, and politicians will not override military protests that their combat effectiveness is being put at risk.

The least implausible political compromise would be to split up the agencies in question, giving some of their elements to the DNI and leaving some in Defense. Without fail, however, the lost units would soon reappear within the Pentagon under other names and programs. In the 1960s, for example, the secretary of defense tried to rationalize and consolidate military intelligence by transferring duplicative activities of the Army, Navy, and Air Force intelligence agencies to the newly created Defense Intelligence Agency. But the result was more redundancy rather than less, since the services soon regenerated most of what they had lost.

RECTITUDE OR RESPONSIVENESS?

One version of the proposal to replace the DCI would give the new DNI a fixed term of office like that of the director of the FBI or the chairman and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ostensibly reducing the odds of politicization or co-optation. If the alternative to this statutory protection is a weak-willed DCI truckling to a manipulative president, the idea would make sense. But it would come at a cost -- a drag on the potential contribution of intelligence to high-level decision-making. The typical problem at the highest levels of government is less often misuse of intelligence than non-use. All the objective information in the world will not matter if the president and his inner circle do not pay attention to it, and they will not do so if they do not interact frequently and have rapport with the leadership of the intelligence community. To the extent that units such as the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans do pose a danger, it can be countered only by a chief of intelligence who is as close to the president as the secretary of defense, and it is unclear how putting the DNI at arm's length from the White House would achieve that.

The ten-year term of the FBI director, for example, has not proved entirely preferable to standard political appointment. The main charge against the bureau after September 11 was not that it was politically compromised, but that it was too insulated and unresponsive, since its culture of law enforcement gave insufficient attention to intelligence. And during the J. Edgar Hoover era, the longevity and independence of the director from a series of presidents did more harm than good.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are not a good model either. Although they have fixed terms (four years), they work under a top-level political appointee, the secretary of defense. The secretary can bridge the communication gap between the politicians and the professionals, ensuring that military expertise and concerns get through to the top even when the president does not know or trust the generals. Yet there would be no secretary of intelligence over a DNI able to play a comparable role.

Close connection between the president and the director of intelligence does pose risks, but so does the lack of such a connection. Since the revelation of mistakes over Iraqi WMD, a common criticism of DCI George Tenet has been that he became too close to the administration's inner circle, "one of the boys." Yet even if the criticism is valid, it is not clear how much worse that problem is than its opposite. Did the intelligence-policy connection work better, for example, when Bill Clinton's first DCI, James Woolsey, could not even get an appointment with the commander in chief?

There is a solution to this dilemma in theory, although not in legislation: select a president and an intelligence director with particular personality traits. The best chief of intelligence is one who has the personal confidence and trust of the president, but who delights in telling the inner circle what it does not want to hear. This relationship can be sustained, of course, only if the president likes to have his thinking challenged and his job complicated -- something more common among intellectuals than among politicians.

A DELICATE BALANCE

The basic problem is that there is no dramatic reform of the intelligence system that everyone agrees will yield a net benefit. Although angry citizens and politicians do not want to hear it, the problem is inherent in the limitations of the intelligence function itself.

As the drawbacks of various proposed solutions become evident, the push for reform could peter out, as it often has in the past (although at least some cosmetic changes are certain, so politicians can claim that something has been done). Over time, however, frustration with intelligence problems could turn ugly.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the controversy over misleading prewar claims about Iraqi WMD has been even more intense than in the United States. Developments there have shaken that country's traditional tight-lipped consensus on keeping intelligence in the shadows of raison d'etat. Former cabinet minister Clare Short's recent stunning revelation about British bugging of the UN secretary-general was the most dramatic example of the crackup, but it was not the first.

The United States remains a long way from such open divisions over how far the government should go in gathering information, but only because the shock of September 11 has not yet fully dissipated. When and if it does, and a counterattack to buttress civil liberties against the demands of counterterrorism gathers steam, it could be a different story. At that point debate could shift from how to produce greater forward-leaning activism by the intelligence agencies to how to cut them back down to size.

What all sides in the current debates should want is to restore public confidence in the competence and integrity of the nation's intelligence system. The challenge will be how to keep inevitable disappointment about the modesty of likely reforms from turning into disillusionment with and disaffection from the intelligence community itself -- and ultimately how to keep the perceived requirements of competence and integrity from diverging.