What kind of intelligence reform is necessary?
Members of the 9-11 Commission are not pleased with President Bush tweaking their intelligence reform proposals: Two members of the Sept. 11 commission criticized President Bush’s proposal to create a national intelligence director, telling Congress on Tuesday that the White House plan fails to give the new spy chief the executive powers needed to revamp ...
Members of the 9-11 Commission are not pleased with President Bush tweaking their intelligence reform proposals:
Members of the 9-11 Commission are not pleased with President Bush tweaking their intelligence reform proposals:
Two members of the Sept. 11 commission criticized President Bush’s proposal to create a national intelligence director, telling Congress on Tuesday that the White House plan fails to give the new spy chief the executive powers needed to revamp the nation’s intelligence agencies. Without the power to set budgets and hire and fire senior managers, the new intelligence czar will lack the clout to make major changes at the nation’s 15 spy agencies, the commissioners told lawmakers at the first House hearing prompted by the panel’s 567-page report on the Sept. 11 terror attacks. “The person that has the responsibility needs the authority,” Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator, told the House Government Reform Committee. “Absent that, they’re not going to be able to get the job done.” Republican commissioner John Lehman, a former Navy secretary who has been seen as a possible replacement for retiring CIA Director George Tenet, also urged the president to reconsider his proposal to base the director outside the White House. The commission recommended establishing the position within the White House to keep the director from being overshadowed by powerful Cabinet members, such as the defense secretary. “Our recommendations are not a Chinese menu,” Lehman said. “They are a whole system. If all of the important elements are not adopted, it makes it very difficult for the others to succeed.”
Sounds like a bad omen for the administration, and more fuel for the left half of the blogosphere. However, intelligence expert Anthony Cordesman argues in a Council on Foreign Relations interview that Bush did the right thing in his initial proposal:
Cordesman: [Bush] wisely, I think, talked about endorsing the recommendations of the commission in some areas, but provided no details as to which he would endorse, the timing, or how [the recommendations] would be implemented. Given the fact that the commission report basically provides no details as to what these recommendations mean in terms of staffing, costs, procedures, information technology, or any of the other steps necessary to implement them, the president has effectively left most issues open. CFR: Is this good or bad? Is this now open for discussion with Congress? It will take some time to put together a plan. Cordesman: That is one of the key issues. Nothing could have been worse or more impractical than calling Congress back to essentially try to vote on legislation to implement recommendations that have no details and no specifics. I think one of the great problems people face is that politicians rushed to join the bandwagon, effectively endorsing chapters 12 and 13 of this report. But they could not possibly have bothered to read what they were endorsing. Nobody in Congress with any experience is going to endorse a generalized recommendation for organizational change without any specifics, without any knowledge of the cost or the effectiveness, or even, because this is the major failing of the report, any knowledge of what has been done since 9/11 to try to fix the problems exposed in the commission report. CFR: Are you implying that Senator John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was premature in endorsing the report’s recommendations? Cordesman: In fairness to Senator Kerry, there were many people in both parties who rushed out to gain political visibility and do the same thing. But it isn’t a matter of being premature; it is a matter of being totally irresponsible to think that you can rush Congress back to pass legislation when you haven’t the faintest idea of what it means, when most of the recommendations have never been reviewed or commented on by the intelligence community, and nobody has any idea of the staffing requirements or costs. CFR: There has been some criticism that the president, by declining to give the DNI control over the government’s intelligence budget, has made the job meaningless. Is this criticism premature? Cordesman: I think it is. The president has to consider some very real problems. Most of the intelligence budget goes to what are called “national technical means” [such as photo and communications satellites]. These are extremely sophisticated high-technology systems. Almost all of the planning and development of these systems occurs in the Defense Department [DOD]. They are designed to be integrated into an overall command-and-control system for military crisis management and war fighting. Now, when you reach budget decisions you have to have a budget structure where both the new DNI and the DOD can play the proper roles in budget review, and where there is programming authority and a programming staff to look beyond the current annual requirement to the overall needs for intelligence and how they fit into our command-and-control and communications systems. Again, one of the great problems in the commission report is that it looked at exactly one issue–counterterrorism–and none of the others. But [U.S.] intelligence users consist of more than 1 million people, many of them in uniform, and when you talk about budgeting and programming authority, you have to consider that. The other difficulty is that at some point–and it will have to be very quick, if the new DNI is given budget authority–the [current] archaic and outdated budget system, which has many different elements and information systems, is going to have to be integrated and converted into a more modern system. You cannot simply wave a magic wand and tell somebody how to create a system that can manage what is certainly more than $20 billion a year.
As someone who urged the Bush administration to take the 9-11 Commission’s policy recommendations seriously, this sounds about right to me. Furthermore, Columbia sociologist Duncan Watts has a Slate piece that suggests the urge to centralize control/authority is mistaken:
Centralizing is an understandable response to the pre-9/11 intelligence fiasco. But as organizational science and history show, it’s also a misguided one. When organizations fail, our first reaction is typically to fall into “control mode”: One person, or at most a small, coherent group of people, should decide what the current goals of the organization are, and everyone else should then efficiently and effectively execute those goals. Intuitively, control mode sounds like nothing so much as common sense. It fits perfectly with our deeply rooted notions of cause and effect (“I order, you deliver”), so it feels good philosophically. It also satisfies our desire to have someone made accountable for everything that happens, so it feels good morally as well. But when a failure is one of imagination, creativity, or coordination—all major shortcomings of the various intelligence branches in recent years—introducing additional control, whether by tightening protocols or adding new layers of oversight, can serve only to make the problem worse…. [C]ombining the many different agencies involved in intelligence gathering and analysis at a single point—that of the director of intelligence—is almost certain not to succeed in delivering the kind of ambiguous yet essential functionality that everyone wants. So, some other kind of connectivity, along with a more creative approach, is required—one that incorporates not only the sharing of information across agency boundaries (a recommendation of the commission’s that has received relatively little attention), but active collaboration, joint training, and the development of long term personal relationships between agencies as well. Creative intelligence analysis has a lot in common with other kinds of problem-solving activities: thinking outside the box, challenging deeply held assumptions, and combining different, often seemingly unrelated, kinds of expertise and knowledge. By understanding how innovative and successful organizations have been able to solve large-scale, complex problems, without anyone “at the top” having to micromanage the process, the intelligence community could learn some valuable lessons that might help it escape the mistakes of the past.
Watts might be overestimating the extent to which even the 9-11 Commission wants to centralize inelligence. However, his points about the power of informal social networks and decentralized efforts sounds awfully familiar with James Surowiecki’s arguments about intelligence reform. The left half of the blogosphere seems exercised about the notion that the Bush administration suggests that it is implementing the Commission recommendations when it actually isn’t. Re-reading Bush’s Rose Garden announcement, I think they do have half a leg to stand on. However, I don’t really care whether the administration is trying to spin the atmospherics on this — duh, of course they are — but I do care about whether the substantive recommendations are the right ones to make. There’s an implicit assumption in much of the blogging on this that the Commission must be correct. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the Commission has put forward a serious proposal — but there should not be an a priori assumption that it’s the best proposal. UPDATE: I received the following e-mail this morning:
I agree with Dr. Watts about the value of informal networks. As a former CIA analyst, I never felt that we lacked more managers. In fact, we needed more line staff and better process–both operationally and for professional development. There was one bright spot, and it could be a model for what Dr. Watts explains. When I joined the Agency, I was lucky to be part of the Career Training program. Besides the obvious benefits of the program (preparation for service), I was told that the program had the additional goal of building cross-directorate relationships to facilitate informal networks. The hope was that these networks would speed sharing of information and problem resolution. In my brief experience, the CT program definitely helped. It’s major shortcoming was its limited scope. While all operations officers went through the program, only a handful of new hires for the other directorates (intelligence, administration and science and technology) participated. Also, the Agency did little to build on what it started in the CT program. More opportunities to bring alumni together both socially and professionally in succeeding years would have been helpful. While no panacea, the CT program is a good start and a modified and expanded version might serve the intelligence community well.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok share their thoughts over at Marginal Revolution
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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