• Obama
  • January 31, 2010
  • 15 minutes read

What’s Wrong with US Intel Agencies

What’s Wrong with US Intel Agencies

 It is time for serious soul-searching regarding the role of the CIA and the intelligence community. Last month’s operational and intelligence failures led to the deaths of seven CIA officers in Afghanistan and might have resulted in nearly 300 deaths on a Northwest Airlines plane headed for Detroit.

It is particularly shocking that President Barack Obama’s chief of counterterrorism, John Brennan, conceded that the latter failure was caused by the fact that there was "no one intelligence entity or team or task force assigned responsibility for doing a follow-up investigation" of the considerable intelligence that was collected.

It is unbelievable that the President had to order the creation of a system for tracking threat reports. The failures beg the question of what have we learned since 9/11.

Previous CIA failures regarding the unanticipated decline and fall of the Soviet Union, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the run-up to the Iraq War demonstrate a $75 billion intelligence enterprise that can provide neither strategic nor tactical warning to policymakers and is reluctant to provide uncomfortable truth to power.

The serious problems that need to be addressed include the important nexus between intelligence and policy — and the need for a CIA that is not beholden to policy or political interests; the militarization of the intelligence community – which must be reversed; the lack of Congressional oversight – which must be corrected, and the decline of operational tradecraft – which must be investigated.

Before addressing reform in Part II, however, we must first confront the mythology that surrounds the intelligence enterprise.

The Greatest Myth: The 9/11 Commission offered insight into the systemic problems of the CIA and the intelligence community. The Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 solved the problems that had been exposed by the 9/11 Commission by creating a director of national intelligence, the so-called intelligence tsar.

In fact, the 9/11 Commission failed to use the powers it had been given to explore the reasons for the 9/11 intelligence failure.

It deferred unnecessarily to the White House’s use of "executive privilege," and failed to stand up to CIA Director George Tenet, who refused to permit commissioners to debrief prisoners held by the CIA. The commission failed to use its subpoena powers and lacked experience in the world of the intelligence community.

The CIA’s Inspector General concluded that the 9/11 failure was about personal failures, accountability and bureaucratic ineptitude. The same could be said for the Christmas Day events. The commission focused on larger issues: budgets and funding, organizational problems and structural fixes.

The Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 actually made a bad situation worse. It created a new bureaucracy under a director of national intelligence (DNI) beholden to the White House, as well as a centralized system that stifles creative thinking and risks more politicized intelligence.

The DNI was not given the authority to challenge the Pentagon’s control of key intelligence agencies and their budgets, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was not given a central depository to fill the analytical gaps between domestic and international terrorist threats.

Thus, the major problems exposed by 9/11 – the lack of a centralized repository of data and the need for more, rather than less, competitive analysis on terrorism – was repeated in the Christmas Day failure.

Finally, by making the DNI responsible for the daily briefing of the President, it ensured that the "tsar" would have little time to conceptualize and implement the strategic reforms that were needed.

President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to request a National Intelligence Estimate before making his decision late last year to increase military forces in Afghanistan revealed his lack of respect for the work of the intelligence community.

Myth Number Two: The intelligence community is a genuine community that fosters intelligence cooperation and the sharing of intelligence information. The intelligence community has never functioned as a community.

With the exception of the production of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), which are indeed a corporate product of the community, there is limited sharing of the most important and sensitive documents collected by the various intelligence agencies, and very little esprit de corps within the community.

There have always been deep rivalries between civilian and military agencies, with the CIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence Research often lined up against the Defense Intelligence Agency and the four military intelligence branches.

This division was particularly profound during the debates over Soviet military power and the verification of Soviet and American arms control agreements, with military intelligence consistently exaggerating the strength of the Soviet military and opposing the disarmament agreements of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The 9/11 and Christmas Day failures revealed continued parochialism and lack of cooperation within the community.

The intelligence community suffers from an inability to learn from its failures and successes. The CIA needs to emulate the US Army, which routinely conducts after-action reports and boasts a Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The center has a small staff, takes advantage of teams of experts to investigate specific issues, and maintains a direct line of communication to senior military leaders to understand what needs to be examined.

Conversely, the CIA has resorted to a culture of cover-up to conceal failures such as the collapse of the Soviet Union; 9/11; the Iraq War; the Christmas Day event; and the suicidal bombing of the CIA’s most important facility in Afghanistan.

Myth Number Three: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence offers a genuine possibility for exercising central control over the intelligence community. The creation of the DNI has worsened the malaise within the CIA without reform for either the agency or the intelligence community.

The fact that the President had to meet with more than 20 intelligence principals to discuss the Christmas Day failure points to the crazy-quilt bureaucratic structure created in the wake of 9/11, as well as the lack of centralized authority and responsibility within the community.

The Pentagon has veto power over the DNI with respect to transferring personnel and budgetary authority from individual agencies into joint centers or other agencies. This fact undermines the possibility of any legitimate reform process.

The first DNI, John Negroponte, became frustrated and left suddenly in December 2006 for a lesser position at the State Department. His two successors have been retired naval admirals, Mike McConnell and Dennis Blair; neither has an understanding of the importance of strategic and long-term intelligence.

The DNI spends far too much time preparing for his daily briefing of the President, which should be in the hands of the CIA, and the issue of cyber-security, which should be in the hands of the NSA.

Instead of pursuing reform, Negroponte, McConnell and Blair have built a huge, lumbering and bloated bureaucracy that includes a principal deputy director, four deputy directors, three associate directors and no fewer than 19 assistant deputy directors.

The DNI has a huge budget (over $1 billion) and has taken its management staff from the CIA and INR, thus weakening the overall intelligence apparatus. There has been no real accountability of the DNI; Congressional intelligence oversight committees have failed to monitor the DNI’s hiring of contractors with extravagant salaries.

Myth Number Four: The CIA is not a policy agency, but is chartered to provide objective and balanced intelligence analysis to decision-makers without any policy axe to grind.

This is possibly the most harmful myth of all, because CIA’s covert action, which has registered a series of strategic disasters over the past 60 years, is part of the policy implementation process.

As a result, much clandestine collection over the years has been designed to collect information that supports policy.

The CIA was unfairly described 30 years ago as a "rogue elephant out of control." In fact, the CIA is part of the White House policy process. Various presidents have authorized regime change in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, the Congo, the Dominican Republic and South Vietnam, which have had disastrous consequences for US interests.

The White House authorized assassination plots in Cuba, the Congo and South Vietnam, and provided legal sanction for the CIA to create secret prisons, conduct torture and abuse, and pursue renditions, often involving totally innocent people without recourse to judicial proceedings.

Myth Number Five: The 9/11 and Christmas Day failures were due to the lack of sharing intelligence collection. The conventional wisdom is that the 9/11 intelligence failure was caused primarily by the failure to share intelligence, particularly the failure of the CIA to inform the FBI of the presence of two al-Qaeda operatives in the United States.

In actual fact, the problem was far more serious; it was a problem of sloppiness and incompetence in dealing with sensitive intelligence information.

It has been established that 50-60 analysts and operatives from the CIA, the FBI and the NSA had access to information that Khaled al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who had links to al-Qaeda, had entered the United States long before 9/11.

These analysts and operatives failed to inform leading officials at their own agencies of the two al-Qaeda operatives, who fell through the cracks of the system. Eight years later, the Nigerian bomber similarly escaped detection despite excellent intelligence collection that was seen by most intelligence agencies.

There is still an inadequate flow of information between intelligence agencies. The United States lacks one central depository for all information on national and international terrorism, and the proliferation of intelligence agencies makes sharing of intelligence products even more cumbersome.

The DNI and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) were created after 9/11 to make sure that intelligence was shared, but this led to a downgrading of the CIA and the lack of a single agency responsible for analyzing intelligence on terrorism.

Tremendous amounts of useful intelligence are collected, but intelligence analysis has not been appreciably improved.

The NSA had information on the Nigerian bomber that wasn’t shared with the CIA and the FBI; the CIA prepared a biographic study of the Nigerian bomber, which it didn’t share with NCTC. The State Department did not pursue whether the Nigerian bomber had a US visa, let alone a multiple-entry visa, in his possession.

The so-called intelligence community lacks an effective computer system to coordinate all intelligence information, although it does have access to the State Department’s consular database-listing visa holders, which it failed to consult.

The DHS’s customs and border units had sufficient intelligence to interrogate the bomber when he landed in Detroit; its Transportation Security Agency lacked intelligence to keep him from boarding a plane to Detroit.

Myth Number Six: The CIA successfully recruits foreign assets. The CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS) relies on walk-ins and rarely recruits major espionage assets. The most successfulwalk-ins, moreover, such as Col. Oleg Penkovsky, often have great difficulty in getting CIA operatives to accept them.

The NCS has had little success in recruiting assets in the closed world of terrorism or in closed societies such as China, Iran and North Korea. Many of the agents recruited from Cuba, East Germany and the former Soviet Union were double agents reporting to their host governments. The suicide bomber in Afghanistan last month was a double agent.

The CIA has to rely on foreign intelligence liaison sources for sensitive intelligence collection and even the recruitment of foreign assets. There are few al-Qaeda operatives who have been killed or captured without the assistance of foreign liaison, particularly the Pakistani intelligence service.

But the suicide bomber at the CIA base in Afghanistan last month was recruited with the help of the Jordanian intelligence service, an extremely risky way to recruit assets; he was brought onto the base without proper inspection and met with more than a dozen officers.

The loss of top-ranking CIA operations officers in Afghanistan points to the need for a review of CIA clandestine operations. The current CIA director, a former congressman, has surrendered to the clandestine culture and cadre; he is unlikely to lead a reform movement.

And President Obama’s appointment of former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, a master of the CIA cover-up over the past two decades, points to a continued cover-up.

Instead of a CIA outside the policy community telling truth to power, providing objective and balanced intelligence to policymakers and avoiding policy advocacy, as President Harry S. Truman wanted, we now have the CIA as a paramilitary organization.

Indeed, there has been a trend toward militarization of the entire intelligence community. In the Bush administration, the CIA was significantly weakened, with a director, Michael Hayden, who was a four-star general.

The Obama administration appointed a retired admiral to be the director of national intelligence, a retired general to be national security adviser, and retired generals to be ambassadors to key countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

By placing the position of the DNI in the hands of the military, the Bush and Obama administrations completed the militarization of the CIA and even the intelligence community itself, where active-duty and retired general officers run the Office of National Intelligence, the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office.

The Pentagon is responsible for nearly 90 percent of all personnel in the intelligence community and 85 percent of the community’s $75 billion budget.

The absence of an independent civilian counter to the power of military intelligence threatens civilian control of the decision to use military power and makes it more likely that intelligence will be tailored to suit the purposes of the Pentagon. This is exactly what President Truman wanted to prevent.

Finally, the Congressional intelligence oversight process has made no genuine effort to monitor CIA’s flawed intelligence analysis or its clandestine operations, and failed to challenge the illegal activities of the CIA that were part of the policy process.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has sat on her hands while CIA Director Leon Panetta methodically dismantled and marginalized the oversight responsibilities of the Office of the Inspector General.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the US Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This story originally appeared at Truthout.org.]