Richard K. Betts, the Council’s top expert on intelligence, says the newly named director of national intelligence (DNI), John D. Negroponte, will inherit an espionage bureaucracy that has been “demoralized” by a series of investigations. The latest probe of intelligence missteps, the Robb-Silberman report released March 31, sharply criticized spy agencies for claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Negroponte, Betts says, must assert his willingness to take charge of competing intelligence agencies to demonstrate that reform legislation enacted in December 2004 will be effective. “It’s still not clear that the new DNI is going to be able to call the tune when issues come up that involve the Defense Department” and other agencies, says Betts, the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies.
Betts, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 4, 2005.
What is the state of mind in the intelligence community these days, in the wake of the Robb-Silberman report and the 9/11 Commission report?
It’s shaken and still being shaken up. It’s demoralized and its reputation is down because of this one-two- actually three- punch of outside reviews. There is also the Duelfer report [on the search for WMD] by the Iraq Survey Group, and it’s universally assumed on the outside, in the public and among the political leadership, that the failures which these reports reveal were egregious and demonstrate fundamental flaws in the community. So, they’re on the ropes at the same time the new legislation aimed at fixing some of this is still coming into focus. How the prevalent assumption that radical change has to occur pans out with this new legislation is the big unknown.
If you were a Negroponte adviser, would you have told him not to take the job?
No. The big question is whether he winds up with significantly more power than the old director of central intelligence [DCI]. What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that, fundamentally, the new legislation creates in the DNI what the old DCI was supposed to do in theory but often could not do because his authority didn’t match his responsibility.
And it’s still not clear that the new DNI is going to be able to call the tune when issues come up that involve the Defense Department especially, but also a number of other agencies, the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] or others, over matters that conflict with what he wants to do. There will probably have to be some test cases in the shake-down period in the coming years. It’s in Negroponte’s interest, if he wants to really implement the vision of the legislation rather than subvert it, to have a showdown on this question and to demonstrate that he, in fact, is going to be able to give more orders to elements within the Defense Department and make more decisions that affect the programs of agencies outside the CIA than the old DCI could do.
The director of central intelligence was supposed to be in charge of all U.S. intelligence agencies, correct?
Yes, although how much authority he was to have apart from the authority of the heads of the departments and agencies in which many of those intelligence units existed has always been unclear. The DCI’s authority changed over time, but it was always limited.
And he did not have the authority to pick the heads of those agencies?
No, he did not, although, in practice, consultation and having the ear of the president will matter more than some statutory statement [that gives the DNI] an official role in naming the heads. I think what is more important is how much budgetary control he will have and whether his preferences about how roles and missions are allocated among agencies turn out to be the governing preferences or whether the other departments will still be able to override him and do their own thing, as was the case many times in the past.
One of the concerns with the new legislation was it would result in a homogenized product that would disguise differences within agencies.
There’s a tension between the values of pluralism and redundancy to maximize competition, thereby reducing the chances that dissenting views will be smothered, and the desire to have a strong central coordinator who will do the job more effectively than the old DCI could. For example, the Robb-Silberman report says at one point that the DNI should play a stronger role in controlling what goes in the president’s daily brief [a daily summary of intelligence information] to eliminate redundancies. Well, that’s fine and that’s efficient, but it also cuts against the notion that dissenting views should be communicated and uncertainties should not be covered up.
The Robb-Silberman report criticizes U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to get an accurate fix on Iraq’s WMD. When the Soviet Union conducted its first atomic bomb test in 1949, that surprised U.S. intelligence, didn’t it?
Yes. There had been a disagreement among various agencies about how soon the Soviets would get an atomic bomb, but the majority view was it would be something like 15 to 20 years later. That was at a time, though, when our ability to collect intelligence in the Soviet Union was very, very constrained or negligible, in some ways analogous to the situation in Iraq.
I would think it is extremely difficult to get good human intelligence from these cultures. North Korea, for instance, has always been regarded as an impossible place to garner good intelligence.
Yes. Everybody agrees we need better human intelligence, that we need to get inside the heads of the leaders of nasty countries or countries with exotic cultures, but it’s not clear how much more can be done, even with much more expensive efforts. But the effort needs to be made. You may have to increase the efforts by 50 percent to get a 5 percent improvement in output, but that may be worth it. The problem is there is a natural limit to how much you can expect to penetrate countries that are essentially closed societies. North Korea is the consummate example of that. Next to North Korea, Iraq under Saddam was an open society.
Western intelligence did pretty well in the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Was that because it had a lot of effective agents working?
It’s a combination of things. There were a lot more contacts between people in Western Europe and the United States and people in Eastern Europe. There were a lot of refugees and emigres who had contacts. But, even then, I would not exaggerate how much on-the-ground, human intelligence we got. The reason our intelligence did so well in the Cold War- and I would say more so in the second half of the Cold War than the first- was due largely to technical intelligence collection and the great advances in overhead [satellite] reconnaissance and electronic interception of communications. It was sort of a golden age for a few decades when we could get a huge amount through those technical collection means that don’t work as well now against rogue states or secretive sub-national groups that don’t communicate over the airwaves.
What does Negroponte have to do when he appears before Congress? What kind of statements does he have to make?
For political purposes, obviously, he has to indicate he’s really going to crack heads and make this new reorganization work to accomplish this sort of centralization and coordination that most of the critics said was missing. He’s got to say that to reassure people and look as if he’s serious. But he’s probably also got to lay out an agenda for what this amounts to operationally at least in general terms.
What would be very interesting would be what, if anything, he says about his plans for relations with the Defense Department. It’s always been acknowledged that the Defense Department is the 800-pound gorilla in the intelligence community and recently there have been changes in the organization of intelligence activities in the Defense Department that move in the direction of even greater independence from the old DCI and presumably, if they go forward, from the new DNI. Negroponte won’t be able to say much about those [plans] in detail without starting some bureaucratic battles he may not be ready for, but if anybody is looking for a real statement that means something about how he’s going to accomplish the new agenda, he’s got to say something about the Defense Department and the organizational relationships with the DNI. That’s probably going to be the single-biggest issue in the next couple of years [related to] how the new reorganization works.
What is at stake for the Defense Department?
The biggest agencies in the intelligence business, in terms of both personnel and expensive collections systems, are housed within the Defense Department: the National Security Agency; the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the NGA, which replaced NIMA, the National Imaging and Mapping Agency; and the National Reconnaissance Office, the NRO. Those three very big collection agencies spend the bulk of the intelligence budget, have the bulk of intelligence personnel, and receive huge amounts of information. The question of what real authority the new DNI has to coordinate and harmonize and reallocate missions and programs among these agencies will be crucial. When the dust settles, if it turns out that it’s not more than what the old DCI had, then the new organization will begin to look as if it is the old system with a new name and perhaps not much more than that.
The NSA was built up during the Cold War to intercept radio signals and phone calls from within the Soviet bloc. Is it as necessary today as it was then?
It’s as least as necessary as it was then if you’re interested in the war on terror. But the obstacles to success have gotten bigger because of technological changes, such as fiber-optic communications, that make it harder to monitor communications of hostile states, and also because sub-national groups have become so much more careful about how they communicate. The competent ones don’t use cell phones anymore for sensitive communications. The Internet is very hard to monitor and control. The challenge to NSA has gotten very big. But most people would consider the interests of the United States in being able to intercept the communications of al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups to be equal to our interests in the Cold War in being able to get Soviet or Chinese communications.
The focus has shifted to terror groups?
I don’t know how the NSA allocates their resources. If I did, I couldn’t say, I guess, without going to jail. But, presumably, their interest is greater in these new targets by a long shot, although some of the traditional targets are going to be of continuing concern, China and Russia particularly. Proportionally, the interest in tracking and getting into the communications of these sub-national groups is a much bigger priority than it would have been during the Cold War or even a few years ago before September 11.
There’s been some criticism in the press and in articles written by people like Joseph Cirincione of the Robb-Silberman report because it does not address whether the president’s decision to go to war in Iraq influenced intelligence-gathering.
There are two questions: Did the administration politicize the intelligence professionals by putting pressure on them? And the second was: Did the administration make proper use of the information it got? I think on the first one, the report does come down and say it echoes the Senate Intelligence Committee report from a few months ago in saying that analysts were unanimous that they were not pressured to change their conclusions or that they did not succumb to any pressure to change their conclusions.
The other question about how and whether the administration utilized the intelligence it got in making a decision for war is a controversial political question. It’s unrealistic to think any commission could productively get at that because that’s high politics. It’s an important question, but it’s one that is likely to be fought over in memoirs and journalistic investigations more than in some commission, because the commission has to be politically balanced to have general credibility, half Republican and half Democrat. And if it got into assessing that question, the whole exercise, I imagine, might fall apart. So, as a practical matter, I don’t think one could expect the commission to answer that question, which is at least as important as the other ones.