US intelligence community embarks on reform process


Following the re-election of President Bush in November 2004, more than three years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, legislative changes will be made to the way that the world’s only superpower processes and analyses intelligence.

A reform bill, which comes six months after the release of the findings of the congressional committee that investigated the attacks against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, has passed through the House of Representatives (by a remarkable 336 votes to 75) and the Senate. The legislation, in the form of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, represents the most significant alteration to the US intelligence community (IC) since the National Security Act of 1947, which created the modern US IC and transformed the Second World War-vintage Office of Strategic Services (OSS) into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It is even more significant than the numerous congressional committees and reform efforts that were initiated in previous decades in response to intelligence failures and scandals (the Bay of Pigs, Watergate and Iran-Contra, for example).

What can the US’s allies expect and how much of an impact on intelligence gathering and lessening of the country’s vulnerabilities will the 600-page reform package bring?

The weaknesses: the responses

Although the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (commonly known as the 9/11 Commission) runs to more than 1,000 pages including addenda, the main messages were clear:

1) enough circumstantial and primary evidence existed at the various levels of law enforcement and the US IC for a far clearer and imminent threat assessment to have been made concerning the 11 September attacks; and

2) the director of central intelligence (DCI) has a deceptive job title. This political appointee has more than enough responsibility in running the CIA and being the chief adviser on intelligence to the President. He is neither in a position to co-ordinate and rationalise the work of the 14 other US intelligence agencies1; nor does he have the requisite powers to control budgets and personnel issues outside the CIA.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act intends to resolve these problems by creating the new position of National Intelligence Director (NID). The director will be a politically appointed individual (as was the DCI) but he or she will have a voice in how the IC’s annual budget of US$40 billion is spent.

Additionally, a National Counterterrorism Center is to be created as a national clearing house for intelligence data. The latter will build on the foundations of the recently created CIA Terrorism Threat Integration Center, which will be renamed and rolled into the new function.

Cultural and political factors

It is far too early to predict the efficacy of the reform measures as approved by Congress and the President. Most analysts agree that changes were urgently required, for many reasons. The most obvious of these is the lack of effective sharing of operational data across US intelligence agencies - a culture of competition and non-disclosure exists between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and CIA. Also, the unusual political architecture of the US complicates matters. The separation of competencies and authorities into federal, state, and local levels has created numerous natural obstacles to interoperability and the timely forwarding of intelligence.

Also relevant is the unique cultural and political evolution of the US IC, which saw a wartime OSS focused on the Axis powers change within two years into a civilian CIA, with exclusively foreign intelligence mandates aimed at the then Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations. Meanwhile, the FBI began its life almost completely focused on the enforcement of laws related to domestic, federal crimes such as bank robbery and kidnapping. The FBI’s later brief of counter-intelligence was greatly influenced by the particular exigencies of the Cold War.

The law enforcement origins and overall mindset of the FBI has also led to an operational style that focuses on information that will stand up in court and secure prosecution. This is a different type of information gathering than that required by ‘pure’ IC agencies such as the UK’s MI5. The recent creation in the US of the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) has not solved these problems.

Of course, there are some very broad ontological questions to answer if any organisational structure is to be reformed successfully. In the case of the US IC, there are two sets of such fundamental questions. The first concerns whether or not the quality of intelligence gathering will be better served by centralisation or decentralisation. Is the latter perhaps more apposite, given the oft-cited Achilles heel of ‘stove-piping’ and the fact that the present enemy, in the form of Al-Qaeda, is a decentralised, globally dispersed and organisationally flat structure? Also, given the scale of the US IC and its complexity, can one person supervise the whole gamut of the community’s activities and remain unsullied by unprofessional political demands while winning the respect of career analysts and operations officers?

The second group of questions concern the ‘sexing-up’ or tailoring of the IC product. If dealt with inadequately, these issues will render useless all the effort and money spent on intelligence. Perhaps the greatest damage in this respect has been made to the UK intelligence services; however, the US IC is also vulnerable in this regard. Michael Scheuer, who led the bin Laden unit of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center in the late 1990s, certainly thinks so. Days after he resigned from the CIA in November 2004, Scheuer stated: "the [Bush] Administration seems to be making it clear that it is not interested in analysis from its intelligence community, if that analysis doesn’t mesh with or support the Administration’s views, policies and perceptions."2

Even if intelligence officers and analysts have not been doctoring reports to suit the political elite, the actions of influential officials such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have done much to damage morale in the IC. The creation of ‘private’ intelligence assets and cells inside the Department of Defense (DoD) and elsewhere, which function in

a fashion more to the liking of the politically appointed, is a dangerous trend that can undermine the integrity of the IC as a whole. On this point it is interesting to note that the wording of the reform bill contains a sentence that has been included specifically to protect DoD interests within the activity of intelligence gathering.

Although it is unwise to believe in excessively negative depictions of the US IC, or even necessarily with those Congressmen who regard agencies such as the CIA as loose cannons, the time has clearly come for remedial action. Although Washington remains tight-lipped concerning the identity of the NID, it is clear that he or she will enter an environment shaped by the wake of resignations and personnel changes in the CIA that followed Porter Goss’s arrival as DCI.

Much hinges on the Bush administration’s choice of NID. Will the director have the ear of the president and be recognised by his or her subordinates? Will the NID he be seen as apolitical while having the ear of the president? These questions must be answered before the NID can begin to address the problems within US intelligence.

Sebestyen Gorka is Executive Director of the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security. He is based in Budapest, Hungary




Explore our related content