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May 02, 2004

If It Ain't Broke...Fixing Intel

Interesting article from Richard K. Betts on the pros and cons of fixing intel:

The most commonly heard proposal for major structural change is to replace the director of central intelligence, who has coordinated the intelligence community since 1947, with a new and stronger director of national intelligence.
This new czar would give up the old post's second hat as CIA director to focus more intently on managing the entire intelligence community - the 15 agencies that lie mostly in departments such as State, Treasury, Energy, and especially Defense.
The director of national intelligence would also get more direct authority over these various intelligence units, a move that would radically reduce the role of the Pentagon, where about 80 percent of intelligence activities and budgets now lie.

Betts makes several practical arguments against overhauling our intelligence structure. I offer two more fundamental considerations. First, while there is nothing wrong with examining the existing structure of our intelligence community, this process is vulnerable to the same flawed assumption as the criminally vapid and time-wasting 9/11 commission: namely, absent a clear and present threat, the American public is willing to fund the programs and accept the erosions of our freedoms that would yield a better outcome.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a public outcry against racial profiling - this after 19 Arab men flew planes into 3 buildings, killing almost 3000 Americans. What seemed like sensible policy - allowing law enforcement to be on the lookout for (not arrest, mind you) people who fit the same general type as the men who had just killed 3000 people was decried as racist. Likewise, the Patriot Act, passed by an overwhelming margin in Congress, was denounced as an evil attempt to take away our civil rights -- by the very same people who had just voted for it. People like John Kerry.

No matter that the very same provisions had been used against organized crime for years. Who is more dangerous: organized crime, or terrorists? Logic was in short supply. Politicians used the Patriot Act as political capital. Even with the carnage of 9/11 fresh in their minds, both the American public and her public servants exhibited all the symptoms of ADD. In this climate, where was the support for the measures needed to effectively fight terrorism?

Secondly, let's remember that the most serious charge leveled against the intelligence community is that they failed to discover that Saddam did not have WMDs. There are two replies to this charge. The first is that this has not been established once and for all. Until all the evidence is in, it cannot be said with certainty what he had or did not have. But if the prevailing theory is accepted and Saddam himself (along with most of his army) did not know that he didn't have WMDs, then our intelligence community would have come to the same conclusion even if we'd had highly placed sources inside Saddam's regime. Like Saddam, like most of his Army units positioned around Baghdad in the weeks before the war, they would have believed there were WMDs in Iraq. Some intelligence failure. How would "fixing" intel fix that?

Another charge is that they failed to prevent the 9/11 attack. Yet the law prevented airlines from screening passengers based on ethnicity, so the airlines couldn't have acted on tips, even if they'd had advance information. These laws are still in effect today. And how would they get such information anyway? Laws prevented law enforcement and intelligence from sharing information - some of that may be fixed now. But an important facet of surprise attacks is the the word "surprise", i.e., the attackers do not announce their intentions in advance. Intelligence failed to predict Pearl Harbor. Due to the sheer volume of terrorist cells and chatter, not all of it can be monitored and investigated. We simply don't have the manpower. And we never will.

I'm not saying we shouldn't look at the existing system to see what could be improved. But it should be done honestly. There's no point in changing things if we don't have the political will to back up the intelligence and law enforcement communities. And there's no point in making pointless changes to fix things that may not actually be broken. Part of the problem was that by all accounts the Clinton White House couldn't even be bothered to attend CIA briefs - this from no less a source than Richard Clarke. Before we accuse intelligence of being broken, perhaps we should make sure someone is listening to them.

- Cassandra

May 2, 2004 at 12:55 PM | Permalink


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U.S. Government Workers Philosophy:

If it ain`t broke, fix it till it is.

Posted by: joatmoaf at May 2, 2004 6:19:30 PM

I like it. It has job security written all over it.

Posted by: Cass at May 2, 2004 8:11:08 PM