Event Summary: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of the 9/11 Commission Report

September 23, 2004

Intelligence failures that took place before the September 11th attacks and the war in Iraq have raised urgent questions over how to best restructure U.S. intelligence agencies and procedures.

At the Brookings Institution today, leading analysts discussed the current state of U.S. intelligence gathering and assessed the challenges ahead.

Brookings Visiting Fellow Richard Falkenrath praised the Bush administration for taking “major steps to address [intelligence] deficiencies.” Falkenrath, who recently left his position as the deputy homeland security advisor and special assistant to the president, said that broad changes in intelligence collection and sharing were enacted following the September 11th attacks.

Falkenrath said that provisions of the Patriot Act, most notably those dealing with domestic wiretaps, have “totally changed our legal regime for getting information at home?against suspected terrorists and their affiliates. This is immensely important.”

Markle Foundation President Zoe Baird said that several mistakes were made prior to September 11, but hoped that future progress wouldn’t be constrained by past failures.

“We can’t punish people from making wrong decisions,” Baird said. “But we can learn from our mistakes and make corrections to the system.” Baird is currently a member of the Technology & Privacy Advisory Committee, which analyzes the Defense Department’s use of technology to fight terrorism.

Opinions differed on the recommendations made by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. James B. Steinberg, director of Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings, said that the commission’s recommendations for a National Intelligence Director would bring accountability to intelligence gathering.

“Even with the changes that have taken place,” Steinberg said, “we haven’t really addressed the question of who’s responsible in any case to make sure that the fundamental issues are taken care of.”

Although Falkenrath called the commission’s report a “good starting place,” he said their recommendations have the “potential to do more harm than good” because “the recommendations don’t flow from their analysis.”

“They have major reorganization recommendations,” Falkenrath said, “but they never say that the organization was even a problem.”

Brookings Senior Fellow Ivo Daalder said the 9/11 Commission was too sensitive to political considerations. As a result, it produced a weak proposal when the time was ripe for radical measures. Although it is doubtful that the commission’s recommendations will be enacted in full, the proposal currently favored by the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to Daalder, creates yet another layer of bureaucracy, and he called for an intelligence restructuring that would respond to the needs of all government agencies.

“There’s no one size fits all intelligence,” Daalder said.