Shadow Government

Did the New Spooks on the Block Really Fix U.S Intelligence?

Ten years ago, ODNI was pitched as the cure to what ailed America's counterterrorism operations. Did it work?


For decades intelligence reformers sought to centralize the U.S. intelligence community in a single office with real power over budgets, personnel, and operations. Ten years ago they finally got their wish. Following an intense congressional fight, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) set up shop in April 2005 with high expectations. The office was supposed to ensure the kind of inter-agency coordination that was supposedly missing before the 9/11 attacks. It was to be the fulcrum of sharing and collaboration among agencies with long histories of mutual suspicion and occasional disdain. Ultimately it sought to unify a sprawling constellation of civilian and military agencies into “fully integrated intelligence community” that would “inform decisions made from the White House to the foxhole.”

Has it achieved these goals? Has it improved national security against terrorist attacks? Has it led to intelligence on other issues and improved the quality of intelligence-policy relations? The 10-year anniversary of ODNI offers a good opportunity to evaluate its performance. Understanding its strengths and weaknesses is particularly important today, because the current push for further reforms is based on the notion that ODNI model has succeeded. Whether these recommendations make sense depends in large part on how we understand ODNI’s history.

Writing for Shadow Government last week, Michael Allen and Stephen Slick argued that ODNI has generally succeeded, though they begin by noting that in some ways it is still too early to judge. In the last decade, for instance, rising intelligence budgets have mostly eased the burden on the director to make hard resource decisions among competing agencies. But on the whole they conclude that the office has successfully promoted intelligence integration, which critics argue was one of the main problems before 9/11, and they urge future policymakers to support its effort. “The alternative,” they write, “is backsliding into old habits that may result in weakened collection, information hoarding, and renewed tribalism.”

To be sure, the intelligence community has a lot to be proud of over the last decade. It played an important role in destroying the original al Qaeda organization that was responsible for 9/11. It developed a raft of new collection capabilities at a time of extraordinary technological change. It supported military campaigns in two wars and conducted its own operations in several others. It also invested heavily in tracking nuclear proliferation and keeping a close eye on emerging nuclear powers like Iran. Policymakers have quietly expressed satisfaction with these efforts.

But it is not clear ODNI deserves the credit. Most of the effort to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization occurred in the years immediately following 9/11. Indeed, by the time ODNI opened for business in April 2005, most of al Qaeda’s leaders were on the run, in prison, or dead. Moreover, much of the war on terrorism has been spearheaded by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterterrorism and Special Activities Centers along with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, so it makes little sense to judge ODNI by progress in the war on terrorism.

What about warning? This is a more important criterion, given that ODNI was established explicitly to improve coordination so that terrorists could not slip through the seams between different intelligence agencies. Allen and Slick argue that one of the most important elements of intelligence reform was the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) housed within ODNI, which “plays a crucial role in merging terror threat information from all sources.” Our conversations with policymakers and intelligence officials suggest that it has been largely successful, and President Obama has directed the creation of a new cybersecurity center based on the NCTC.

Rather than being revolutionary, however, the NCTC was an outgrowth of a pre-existing organization called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which was in place more than a year before the intelligence reform legislation that led to the creation of ODNI. Moreover, it is unclear why NCTC requires a Director of National Intelligence. NCTC’s success is much more a result of taking the lead in managing strategy and policy for counterterrorism rather than intelligence integration per se. This management role is intrinsically important, and for an ongoing global campaign like counterterrorism it is beyond the limited capacity of the National Security Council staff.

Yet managing strategy and policy for a specific issue area does not require an ODNI and its attendant bureaucracy. Indeed, the relationship between the national centers (NCTC, the National Counterproliferation Center, and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center) and the ODNI headquarters staff sometimes creates unnecessary problems. Rather than facilitating coordination, the additional layer of bureaucracy can create friction. It is entirely possible that the centers would perform at least as well — and perhaps even better — without ODNI.

Perhaps we are being too critical. After all, it is a fact that the United States has not suffered another 9/11-scale attack, which seems to suggest that the major aspect of intelligence reform has worked. It is impossible to know whether better warning procedures are responsible, however, because al Qaeda was decimated before the reforms were implemented. Al Qaeda was unique among terrorist organizations, both in terms of its ambitions and capabilities. Few if any other groups had the wherewithal to pull off the same kind of spectacular violence during the time that ODNI was getting up and running. It may have implemented reasonable reforms to improve warning, but the United States was unlikely to suffer a major attack even if it hadn’t. In any case, there are reasons to believe that the “failure of coordination” argument is overstated. There was quite a lot of coordination before 9/11, and the failures were mainly due to human error rather than poor organizational design.

It is also worth considering the unexpected by-products of the drive for more sharing and coordination that has been central to the ODNI story. While it is understandable that analysts have easier access to information, there is a danger that pooling information for common use may create a greater danger for major breeches. Would Edward Snowden, a contractor, have been able to steal so many classified documents if not for a decade’s worth of exhortation to share?

Ultimately, the major successes in U.S. counterterrorism after 9/11 were not due to intelligence reorganization but a change in policy. Before the attacks, U.S. policy was unfocused and risk averse. After the attacks policymakers took an intense interest in destroying al Qaeda and were willing to risk a great deal of blood and treasure in the process. Nearly a decade ago we argued that 9/11 was a national failure rather than an intelligence failure. In the 1990s, politicians and the general public took the threat of terrorist attack much less seriously than many in the intelligence community. The past decade has been radically different. It is this change, rather than ODNI’s rearranging of the bureaucratic deck chairs, that explains the lack of successful attacks.

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