I’ll say this about President Bush: he’s consistent.
He reluctantly agreed to the establishment of the 9/11 Commission. He grudgingly gave the Commission access to critical documents, including the infamous August 6 memo entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” He cleared National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to testify only after Richard Clarke’s book and testimony set off political alarm bells. He met with the Commission only when it agreed that the vice president could chaperone.
Now, he’s seemingly endorsed the Commission’s key recommendations on intelligence reform, including the establishment of a national intelligence director and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). However, at first blush, he didn’t provide these new boxes in the national security wiring diagram sufficient assets or authority. Unfortunately, unless Congress adds the beef, this will be a replay of the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, which mostly involved a rearrangement of existing deck chairs without a commensurate increase in resources.
The Bush administration diverged from the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations in three fundamental ways.
First, it decided not to locate the national intelligence director within the Office of the President. The argument here is that this will give the position greater independence, but independence in this sense didn’t prevent George Tenet from jumping on board the president’s war wagon and describing our intelligence as a “slam dunk” prior to the invasion of Iraq. Outside the White House and without cabinet rank, the intelligence czar loses the considerable leverage that comes with speaking on behalf of the president.
Second, the administration decided not to challenge the existing authority of the secretary of defense over the budget and personnel of intelligence organizations within the Department of Defense. Within Washington bureaucracies, however, where control of people and money are tangible manifestations of power, this threatens to limit the authority of the new intelligence czar. The director of central intelligence currently possesses coordinating authorities over the intelligence community similar to those that will be invested in the new position, but has lacked impact. The 9/11 Commission related a memo that George Tenet sent to the intelligence community in late 1998 declaring that “we are at war” with al Qaeda; it had little effect. On the surface, therefore, it’s hard to see how an intelligence czar with a hat but no cattle will fare much better.
Third, it is unclear whether the NCTC will encompass both the newer Terrorism Threat Integration Center (TTIC) and the more established Counterterrorism Threat Center that the CIA formed in 1986. Throughout its report, the Commission stressed the need for joint action and a more integrated structure, drawing an analogy to the Goldwater-Nichols defense reforms in the mid-1980s that turned the Pentagon on its head operationally. Joint combatant commands were transformed from backwaters to the backbone of our war-fighting capability. Military services that previously enjoyed considerable independence and influence were given the vitally important but clearly subordinate role of training and equipping forces in support of the regional (like Central Command) or functional (like Special Operations Command) commands. For individual military service members, joint experience went from being a diversion to a career imperative.
To a large extent, the success of the intelligence reforms urged by the 9/11 Commission depend both on what happens structurally and what happens functionally. What is required?
First, the national intelligence director must be the analyst in chief. The existing intelligence agencies can be largely responsible for intelligence collection, but the national intelligence director must reform, expand and control the intelligence planning and analysis functions in order to preclude the kinds of intelligence failures – what we didn’t know prior to 9/11 and what we thought we knew in Iraq – that we experienced in recent years.
Second, the national intelligence director should own not just the National Counterterrorism Center, but a string of national intelligence centers that reflect the national security priorities of the United States. The 9/11 Commission notionally recommended five additional centers reflecting key regions (the Middle East, China and Russia) as well as transnational challenges (proliferation, international crime, and narcotics). Support of these centers must be the priority of the intelligence community.
Third, these national intelligence centers must attract the best intelligence analysts from all agencies. Such joint service should be a requirement for promotion within the intelligence community. As a national priority, the government must urgently expand the available pool of intelligence analysts and reduce the current backlog for high-level security clearances.
Finally, national intelligence centers must have access to all-source intelligence. Three years after 9/11, our best intelligence is still stove-piped, even within new fusion centers like TTIc= Part of this challenge remains technical — investment in compatible information systems, for example — but most of it is cultural. Standards for access to information must be consistent across the intelligence community.
Unfortunately, the president’s half-hearted embrace of the 9/11 reforms is not encouraging, particularly as it will send the wrong signal to Capitol Hill, where reforms are required as well. Unless these intelligence reforms change existing intelligence agency cultures, reduce unproductive redundancies, generate joint action and achieve integrated intelligence analysis, they will only add layers to the bureaucracy, not connect more dots.
P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director of national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress.