Force Spies to Work Together

Flynt L. Leverett
Flynt L. Leverett Senior Fellow, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

July 9, 2004

Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release its report on the prewar intelligence on Iraq. The document is likely to make clear that America’s intelligence network, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency, badly needs repair.

The Senate report will also show that America’s intelligence shortcomings aren’t going to be addressed simply by changing C.I.A. directors. As the report should make clear, our spy services both failed to do a thorough enough job watching Iraq’s weapons programs and played down evidence that challenged the prevailing assumptions that the programs were active. In addition, analysts did not critically evaluate their sources of information; instead, they marshaled the available evidence to paint the picture that policymakers wanted to see.

And how will President Bush and his administration respond to these findings? It’s unlikely that they will do much of anything. After all, every independent panel that examined American post-cold-war intelligence—including President Bush’s own Scowcroft commission—recognized that fundamental structural changes were needed in our intelligence services. Yet, the White House has remained steadfastly passive as critical problems have gone unaddressed. Meanwhile, administration loyalists have argued repeatedly that structural change is not needed to improve the community’s performance, providing a politically comfortable rationale for the White House’s inaction.

In theory, the argument against radical reform might seem plausible. The director of Central Intelligence today has sufficient authority on paper to address many of the issues that will be identified in the Senate report, like the failure of collectors and analysts to share information about sources.

But in practice, the C.I.A. has had a hard time breaking free from its culture of mediocrity. During my years in government at the C.I.A. and elsewhere, I was repeatedly told that the problems now publicly identified in the Senate report were going to be fixed. I remember years of discussion about the desirability of “co-locating” analysts and operations officers working on the same target — seeing to it that they had the equal access to information about their sources. But in the end, nothing was done to change old ways of doing business, setting the stage for the Iraq fiasco.

The story, it seems, hasn’t changed much. In February, for example, Jami Miscik, the agency’s deputy director of intelligence, told C.I.A. analysts in a speech that the problems with information-sharing would be fixed within 30 days. It’s July, and nothing has happened.

Clearly, structural reform needs to go beyond the creation of a freestanding intelligence “czar” who would oversee the entire American spy network. We need to develop a model of “jointness” for the intelligence community, analogous to what the Goldwater-Nichols Act did for the uniformed military 18 years ago. That legislation made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the principal military adviser to the president. It also mandated cross-service commands, defined regionally and functionally, as the operational chains of command for American military forces.

This change produced real improvement in military performance. Before Goldwater-Nichols, too many modern military missions were characterized by disaster: the botched attempt to rescue hostages in Iran, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the operational problems that plagued the invasion of Grenada.

Since Goldwater-Nichols required the armed services to collaborate, we have seen the successes of Panama, Operation Desert Storm and the outstanding battlefield performance of our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This model should be applied to American intelligence. This means moving away from the current organizational structure, defined primarily along disciplinary and agency lines. (The C.I.A.’s directorate of intelligence, for example, is responsible for all-source analysis; the directorate of operations is responsible for human intelligence collection; the National Security Agency is responsible for communications intelligence. Turf is sacred.)

Instead, we should organize and deploy our resources against high-priority targets, including terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, China and problem states in the Middle East. Focused on a particular target, each group would draw on people and resources from across the intelligence community. These new target-based centers would report to a new national intelligence director, not to heads of individual agencies. Existing agencies would function primarily as providers of personnel and resources, much as the individual military services function in relation to the combatant commands.

Certainly, there have been some tentative steps toward collaboration. The Counterterrorist Center and the Weapons Intelligence, Proliferation and Arms Control Center, both of which report to the director of Central Intelligence, reflect some of the logic of such cooperation. While the counterterrorist center wasn’t inclusive enough to bring together information that might have stopped the 9/11 attacks, at least its analysts and operators are focused, in an integrated way, on their target.

Still, it is clear that our intelligence agencies cannot move toward partnership on their own. The post-9/11 battles among the counterterrorist center, the new Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the F.B.I., and the Department of Homeland Security over primacy in assessing the terrorist threat strongly suggest that we have regressed in the effort to integrate. For its part, the arms control center was not independent enough of C.I.A. views to avoid being led toward a flawed analysis of the Iraqi arsenal.

It is going to require strong presidential and Congressional leadership to achieve genuine reform. Thoughtful members on both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress are already working on serious reform proposals, though nobody has yet had the courage to devise a Goldwater-Nichols Act for our spy agencies. In this context, the Bush administration’s lack of initiative is inexplicable and unconscionable.

There are those who argue that intelligence reform should not be taken up during a political season. They are wrong. This kind of reform can take place only in a political moment. We need a thorough discussion of the issue in the context of the current presidential campaign so that whoever is inaugurated in January has a mandate to break organizational pottery in order to save American lives.