Fixing Our “Intelligence” Problem




The American people should be grateful to the members and staff of the 9/11 Commission. Against considerable odds, they have produced a document that significantly expands our collective understanding of the events leading up to September 11, the attacks themselves, and our government’s response. More impressive is the fact that the Commission was able to reach its conclusions on a bipartisan basis during a period of great partisan rancor in most other areas of public discourse. Equally impressive were the thoroughness of the analysis and the clarity of expression. The Commission has set a standard by which future fact-finding panels will be judged.

Having said that, the recommendations put forward by the panel for changing the structure and organization of government are not nearly as thoughtful or carefully constructed as the historical narrative that precedes them. There are, in fact, serious flaws in a number of the proposed remedies and they should not be pushed through the Washington decision-making system in the same hurried manner that the deeply flawed Department of Homeland Security was created.

The most conspicuous of these proposals is the creation of a national intelligence director. This individual would have some degree of administrative budget authority over the government’s 15 separate intelligence agencies. These range from large agencies dedicated to the entire spectrum of intelligence matters (the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency) to small and narrowly focused operations that focus on such things as computer fraud and money laundering. In between are a number of agencies that are large in size but which are predominantly committed to missions that are not closely linked to intelligence or the War on Terror.

The Commission clearly spent the bulk of its time uncovering and scrutinizing the facts involved in the 9/11 attacks and should be forgiven for not developing a clearer picture of how these various entities currently interact and how the structure that is now in place is supposed to operate. One important question the Commission failed to fully answer is whether or not the failings that were identified could have been avoided under the current set of structures if the individuals in place had discharged their responsibilities more effectively. There is little or no mention, for instance, of the role of the National Security Council and its responsibilities with respect to coordinating, reconciling and consolidating the flow of information from not only the intelligence agencies but from military planners and the diplomatic services. If the recommendations serve to create a new set of parallel institutions that would duplicate authorities already vested in other parts of the government, the likely result would be to slow the flow of information and reduce the quality of decision making.

The national intelligence director, or NID, would assume a managerial role over the activities of agencies now housed in numerous departments of the federal government. The Defense Intelligence Agency, for instance, exists largely because the chiefs of the military services and their subordinate commanders did not feel that the CIA was able to provide them with the kind of real-time tactical intelligence that is required in successful military operations. Would the new NID take the authority to control the collection and dissemination of information by the DIA away from the Department of Defense? The purpose of such a transfer would seem dubious, since only a fraction of DIA collection is focused on issues relevant to national policy makers in the war on terrorism.

The same question is equally relevant with regard to the FBI. That agency is responsible not only for collecting intelligence, but also for collecting evidence needed for successful prosecution of criminals—most of whom are not terrorists. Collecting evidence for court proceedings generally requires resources and procedures quite different from those used purely for intelligence purposes. Successful prosecutions require close coordination between prosecutors and law enforcement officials responsible for the evidence they must develop to win convictions. Will the attorney general and the U.S. attorneys have to yield their control over a portion of the agents in the Bureau, or over some activities but not all activities of certain agents?

The same situation is true with respect to the Secret Service and what authority its current boss, the secretary of homeland security, would continue to have after the creation of a national intelligence director. Similar situations exist with respect to the intelligence activities of the Department of Energy, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and several other of the 15 agencies to be placed under the NID banner.

A second troubling question is the extent to which the NID would have the authority to alter, influence or redirect the analysis and conclusions of analysts in these specific agencies. That seems to be at least part of the motivation in creating such a position. But empowering a new level of bureaucracy to oversee, second guess or synthesize the information and assessments of individual intelligence agencies has profound implications for a system that presently allows policy makers to have a clear picture of conflicting information and disputed assessments that are a normal part of creating a balanced picture based on the best unvarnished professional judgments of our analysts.

Finally, the NID is supposed to maintain budget authority over the intelligence community. What this actually means is unclear, since there is little question that Article I of the Constitution places that role squarely in the hands of the legislative branch. Nothing short of a constitutional amendment would be required to limit Congress’ ability to review proposed expenditures for items such as satellite systems, covert collection devices, construction of training facilities or advanced computer systems, and to make such adjustments as they might deem appropriate.

Another interpretation of this recommendation would be that the NID would play the central role in developing the president’s budget request to the Congress. Presumably, the NID and not the director of the Office of Management and Budget would make the final case to the president about the needs of the intelligence community. But this also raises difficult issues. In periods of tight budgets there are always tradeoffs, and only the director of OMB is in a position to know whether a new satellite system to improve ground observation is really more pressing than upgrading an infantry fighting vehicle or replacing helicopter radars.

None of this is to say that we do not need to reform or upgrade our intelligence capabilities. We do not have the intelligence capabilities we should have, or with some additional effort could have. In my opinion, 9/11 brought into focus three areas of serious weakness. First, we have far too little understanding of the culture, language and aspirations of many of the people with whom we share the planet. This failing runs from the top levels of government to living rooms and breakfast tables across America. When two great oceans sheltered us from the troubles of the rest of the world, we could get by with a lower level of understanding—but not anymore. All of us need to know more and some of us need to know a lot more. I don’t think there is anything that would more permanently improve our intelligence than encouraging more bright young people to study abroad and not only learn languages such as Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and Korean, but learn more about the peoples that speak these languages.

Secondly, if there was one serious institutional failure that requires the long term attention of the Congress and the senior leadership of the executive branch, it is the capacity of the FBI to function against any covert broad-based threat. The Bureau has many good people, but it had virtually no capacity as an institution to collect, share and analyze large threat information. While much has been made of the failure of intelligence agencies to share important information with one another, the unfortunate truth is that the FBI was incapable of sharing information with itself. It was, furthermore, incapable of protecting the secrecy of information that other agencies attempted to share with it. Until dramatic cultural and structural changes occur within the FBI, the American people will continue to be far more at risk than they should be. Perhaps the most important change is the recognition by Bureau personnel that the mission that the nation now needs them to perform extends well beyond law enforcement. They can no longer be individual crime fighters but instead must become part of a team in which analysts and others, who may not necessarily carry a badge but have critical technological and other skills, have a co-equal role with agents. This will require resources, but also vigorous and ongoing oversight, both within the executive branch and by the Congress.

Thirdly, no solution to the management of our nation’s intelligence apparatus can bypass the National Security Council, as the 9/11 Commission report attempts to do. The reconciliation of conflicting information relating to major policy questions should not take place at a lower level. That is the core purpose of the NSC, and its deconfliction responsibilities extend far beyond intelligence or information sources within the purview of the proposed NID. They include judgments by field commanders, diplomatic cables, and assessments by an array of experts available to the president but not part of the formal intelligence network.

Ultimately, the greatest failure of the U.S. government with respect to the War on Terror may have been the reliance on information provided by Ahmed Chalabi concerning both the activities of Saddam’s regime prior to the invasion and the attitude of Iraqis about U.S. military occupation following the invasion. Reliance on this wholly inaccurate information took place despite warnings from the State Department and the CIA about Chalabi’s reliability.

While the Defense Department should clearly be subjected to criticism for wasting tax dollars and being duped by a character like Chalabi, the information it transmitted would have never made it into the Oval Office if the National Security Council had met its responsibilities in reconciling disparate views within the executive branch. This very point is the large elephant in the corner of the room that has yet to become part of the public debate.

Information, whether collected covertly or overtly, is the core ingredient in producing effective policies. We have suffered an information failure affecting the way our government collects, synthesizes, weighs, transmits and uses both types of information. That job is the core responsibility of the National Security Council, and building an additional layer of bureaucracy to prescreen the transmission of intelligence does not solve the problem. It in fact is likely to make it worse. At a very minimum, it deflects attention from the real problems that must be resolved.

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.




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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow