A single, somewhat superficial fix for all that went wrong that awful September day in 2001 is in the offing: the creation of an “intelligence czar” with authority over all of the many agencies now charged with intercepting, analyzing and collecting data on threats to the nation.
With the president’s blue ribbon commission on the 9/11 attacks due to release its final recommendations later this week, the leak of this choice morsel to The New York Times framed the debate over the greatest tragedy in American history in the most simplistic possible terms. It is as if, having searched in vain for a slam-dunk scapegoat these last few years, the nation is just too weary to follow the complex twists and turns any longer. As one well-placed source put it, the beauty of the “intelligence czar” proposal is that, even if it doesn’t make America less vulnerable to a second 9/11 event, “at least we’ll know just who to fire next time it happens.”
Not all bad
There are many good arguments for the creation of a director of national intelligence, under whom the many intelligence agencies currently run by the Defense, State, Justice and other government departments would fall.
These agencies continue to be plagued by internal resentments and rivalries, crossed chains of command and overlapping jurisdictions, and a culture of secrecy so severe that it lacks the ability to produce clear, actionable intelligence.
Sincere people exist on both sides of this argument. Yet the focus on creating an "intelligence czar" is viewed by many who have studied the failings of 9/11 as something like offering a Band-Aid to a cancer patient.
“I think it would be just fine, maybe even a good idea,’ says an intelligence official who requested anonymity. “But you cannot do anything worthwhile without some accountability. Where has there been accountability? Changes are being fought tooth and nail by all parties, and in most cases the same people are still sitting behind the same desks. Even (CIA Director George) Tenet’s resignation really wasn’t about 9/11 — it was about Iraq.”
A unique moment
It is not often — perhaps only once in a generation — that the forces needed to push through major reforms of a bureaucracy the size of the U.S. intelligence community come into alignment. Congressional reports and blue ribbon commissions, as any Washington veteran can tell you, are part of the landscape. But add to them public outrage, the continuing fear of another attack, the wartime atmosphere and a genuine zeal in parts of both political parties to fix what is wrong, and you have the ingredients for success.
“When window of opportunity for reform arises, you have to open it up as wide as you possibly can and be as radical as you can because the permanent bureaucracy will do everything it can to foil it,” says Amy Zegart, a UCLA professor and intelligence expert. Her 1996 book, “Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS and NSC,” identified many of the failings that would prove so devastating when al-Qaida struck five years later.
The Darkest DayAs Zegart and other experts point out, czar or no czar, there are bigger fish to fry. And while many of these issues will be thrashed out in some detail in the voluminous report expected to be issued by former Gov. Tom Kean’s panel this week, Zegart and others interviewed fear that the honing in on the “intelligence czar” option is a bad omen for future change.
“Nothing makes Washington policy wonks more comfortable than rearranging an organization chart,” says William M. Arkin, an NBC News intelligence analyst and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Among the many issues these experts hope will survive the coming storm of lobbying:
Domestic intelligence: Should the same agency which currently handles criminal investigations, the FBI, also be allowed to harness the Patriot Act’s expanded powers and act as a domestic spy agency? This question has divided the 9/11 panel like no other and has led to a full-court press from FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft, each of whom argue that, contrary to anecdotal evidence, the FBI is quite capable of both roles.
Some doubt this, however.
“How much are we willing to change in response to 9/11 attack, to tolerate being watched, our information being joined into databases that create a whole new picture of person that didn’t exist before, how much should we accept authorities pushing, probing and demanding?” asks Jim Gilmore, a former Virginia governor who led another panel investigating these issues on behalf of the Bush administration. “If the enemy’s going to force us to change what we are as Americans, we should do it with our eyes opened. As a conservative Republican, I’m deeply concerned about this.”
Gilmore’s panel recommended that the United States create a new, separate domestic spy agency modeled on Britain’s MI-5, which has the power to investigate but which must call an agency like FBI to make the actual arrests.
Former Sen. Gary Hart, whose own panel on domestic terrorism in the late 1990s proved horribly prescient, goes further, questioning the FBI’s ability to change. “The culture there is investigate, arrest, prosecute,” he says. “That’s the wrong approach for a domestic spy agency, who should be thinking, ‘Stop the attack.’ I’ve seen no indication they [FBI] can change their stripes.”
Zegart offers further evidence. Of a half-dozen FBI agents nominated by the agency for Presidential Rank Awards this year, none was in counter-terrorism. And, she adds, nearly four years after 9/11, the FBI’s 17-week training course at Quantico, Va., still contains only two weeks of counter-terrorist training.
Human intelligence: Efforts to track al-Qaida and, later, estimates of Iraq’s WMD capabilities, both fell severely short of reality due to an over-reliance on technological intelligence gathering and the use of paid informants with dubious or even obvious ulterior motives. Intelligence agencies insist they are working to rebuild the network of human intelligence agents that once roamed the globe. They point to outreach efforts and the hiring of dozens of new language specialists.
But the progress is slow. Successive years of closed intelligence hearings on Capitol Hill brought criticism from Congress, both among Republicans and Democrats, at the slow pace of hiring in this area. In June, for instance, the Republican-led House Select Intelligence Committee criticized the CIA’s lack of human intelligence in its annual appropriations bill. “For too long, the CIA has been ignoring its core mission activities,” the GOP majority language noted. “There is a dysfunctional denial of any need for corrective action."
National security priorities: While the 9/11 panel is expected to detail shortcomings in the funding of first responders, customs and immigration officials, the panel steered clear of the politically sensitive other side of that coin: the enormous increase in U.S. military spending that had little or nothing to do with the immediate terrorist threat.
For instance, the record-setting budget of the United States military this year contains $9.2 billion for research and testing of a National Missile Defense system, a sum which has grown every year since 1985 and is still years away from even proving it is scientifically viable.
Similarly, $4.4 billion was included for development of a new generation F-22 Raptor a jet first envisaged as a counter to a generation of Soviet weapons that never was built. The Air Force argues, reasonably, that the F-16s the aircraft is meant to replace are now a generation old and increasingly expensive to maintain. Yet, at the same time, the Pentagon authorized $3.2 billion for purchase of the Joint Strike Fighter. Add a few billion more for the redesigned, upgraded F/A-18 Super Hornet for the Navy, and you have three tactical fighter aircraft going into production at a time when no ten foreign powers combined can threaten the U.S. Air Force’s dominance of the skies.
Missing the boat?
Election year politics plays a role here, of course, with both parties putting the thickest line possible under the perceived sins of the other. But the bigger challenge, in the long run, will be changing the culture of the permanent bureaucracies that run the Pentagon, CIA, FBI and other key agencies no matter who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
New blood at the top is only the beginning of the fight. Halfway through the Clinton administration, when George Tenet came into office, for instance, he saw that mistrust in the sprawling intelligence community was hampering information sharing and the ability to get a full, clear picture of the threats facing the nation. So he ordered a strict “rotation” program be implemented, and decreed that no intelligence official would be promoted without spending a few months working in another part of the intelligence community.
“Every single agency out there completely ignored it,” says Zegart. “It ran against the culture, and it just disappeared.”
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