An Opportunity for Intelligence Reform

The 9/11 Commission has placed before us an unprecedented opportunity for reform of the intelligence community. While the commission exposed weaknesses, failures, and management problems at all levels of the U.S. government, it found that the intelligence community as a whole had failed the country in ways not seen since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It therefore proposed a White House-based national intelligence director as a fundamental step in strengthening our country's intelligence capacity.

Although the director of central intelligence formally heads the entire community, his lack of control over budgets and personnel decisions effectively leaves power in the hands of those agency heads who do exercise that control. Thus, the commission has proposed shifting control of the intelligence budget and personnel decisions from individual agencies to the new national director – a move critical to ensuring that this person will have the power to guide the entire community.

In addition, for more than 50 years the DCI has effectively been the head of the CIA, the principal adviser to the president and National Security Council on intelligence matters, and the overseer of the intelligence community. Most directors have been able to perform the first two of these functions — but always at the cost of the third, as one person cannot possibly do all three jobs well at once. Thus, the commission decided that shifting authority was not enough — it was also critical to split the DCI's job in two, giving one person the task of rebuilding the CIA and another the job of advising the president and managing intelligence as a whole. That is why the Commission was right to reject the suggestion by John McLaughlin, the acting CIA director, that his position simply be strengthened by transferring budget and personnel authorities.

Effective reform, however, requires more than shifting boxes on an organizational chart or transferring control over money and people. As the commission recognized, it requires rethinking the way intelligence collectors, analysts and operators interact. Until now analysts have been separated from those who collect intelligence in an effort to protect sources and methods of collecting information. As a result analysts know little about the quality of the sources of information, nor are they able to consider how additional intelligence could be gathered to fill any gaps.

The commission has proposed to end this separation by creating national intelligence centers that are mission – rather than information – oriented. It specifically calls for the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center that would put operators and analysts dealing with all terrorist-related issues (foreign and domestic) into one organization. And it proposes that the government's strategic intelligence work — for example, on China or weapons proliferation — be similarly organized in national intelligence centers, all of which would report to the new national director.

These are bold, ambitious reform proposals that are sure to illicit bureaucratic resistance, since change involves taking power and responsibility from some agencies and people and handing them to others. The commission's recommendations are especially threatening because they propose transferring authority from some of the most important and powerful people in the U.S. government — the secretary of defense, the CIA director, and the heads of key collecting agencies like the National Security Agency, FBI Intelligence Office and National Reconnaissance Office.

The commission itself has recognized that change will not be easy. As commissioner and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey put it, "I would call myself hopeful but not optimistic that these changes will be enacted prior to another terrorist attack on the United States."

Yet, while resistance is likely, it should not stand in the way of reform. It is time to send a clear message that we have arrived in a new era, one in which intelligence is no longer subservient to military interests and tactical considerations, but now must serve the strategic interests of the nation. In an era of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, good intelligence is our first line of defense. Decisions on how to deploy resources, where to collect information, and who should have access to intelligence ought to be made with that overriding objective in mind and not by tactical and military considerations as is still largely the case today.

Fortunately, the political climate for embracing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations has never been better. There is, first of all, the inescapable fact that the intelligence community is broken — as the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq WMD fiasco vividly underscore. There is also a growing consensus that reform of this kind is the minimum necessary. President Bush's own Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, reportedly concluded more than two years ago that there was a need for a robust director of national intelligence. The House-Senate Joint Intelligence Committees Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks reached a similar conclusion.

And now the 9/11 Commission has come forward with its endorsement. With Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry backing the idea and President Bush expressing an openness to considering intelligence reform proposals, the time for change has clearly come.

Ivo H. Daalder is a special adviser at the Center for American Progress and a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution.

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