David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Opinion Writer

The 9/11 Commission’s unheeded warning

As America takes stock of its counterterrorism policies this week, it’s useful to review two major recommendations in the 9/11 Commission Report. The first, which called for creation of a new director of national intelligence to “connect the dots,” is finally making some progress in coordinating the 17 agencies of the intelligence community.

But the commission’s second big proposal, urging Congress to reform its intelligence oversight procedures, unfortunately has gone nowhere. It seems members remain addicted to petty politics, even when it comes to reforms demanded in the name of Sept. 11 victims. We’ll get to that later.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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Let’s look first at the performance of James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is the fourth director of national intelligence since the position was established in 2005. The turnover suggests the difficulties defining the job. Too often, it produced layering and turf battles. For example, Clapper’s predecessor, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, was ousted after a self-destructive campaign to challenge CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Clapper, a goateed, wisecracking 70-year-old veteran of the intelligence community, had no interest in jousting with the CIA. He had run two Pentagon intelligence agencies and saw the DNI job as coordination — a sort of intelligence version of the Office of Management and Budget — rather than line management. Like his mentor, former defense secretary Bob Gates, he’s fond of saying, when facing bureaucratic obstacles, “I’m too old for this [expletive]!”

Clapper botched several early media appearances, misstating or appearing unaware of major developments — not altogether surprising for someone who had spent his career staying out of the limelight. But he got strong reviews from the White House: Recognizing that President Obama was a voracious reader, he revamped the morning intelligence briefing so it wasn’t a rehash of the written “President’s Daily Brief” and would better meet Obama’s needs. White House officials say it was a welcome change from Blair’s briefing style.

More important, Clapper began to tackle the real problem the DNI job was supposed to fix — the sprawling morass of the intelligence community. He started by trimming some of the waste in his own shop, which he thought had become a “Christmas tree” hung with ornaments from Congress or other agencies.

Like Gates at Defense, Clapper showed he was actually willing to kill programs and replace people. He dumped the incumbent deputy director and chief information officer in favor of two stars he brought over from the CIA. He sent one technical function back to the National Security Agency and transferred an ill-defined National Intelligence University to the Pentagon. He trimmed the roster of deputy directors for national intelligence from four to one, and he cut the ODNI staff to 1,600 from about 2,000, with more cuts to come.

The heart of Clapper’s integration effort is a new team of “national intelligence managers,” who drive collection and analysis in 17 subject areas. The model for this sort of fusion is the Joint Special Operations Command — which can conduct a raid at midnight, say, and analyze and exploit the intelligence quickly enough to conduct another raid at dawn. Clapper wants this kind of agility in the intelligence community as a whole.

The “NIMs,” as they’re called, just settled into their offices a floor below Clapper at the DNI’s headquarters near Tysons Corner. The new structure meant the demotion of the analysts who serve as “national intelligence officers,” and several NIOs have quit in protest. Combining supervision of collection and analysis makes sense, but the NIM project needs strong follow-through.

More efficiencies are on the way as a shrinking intelligence budget forces further consolidation. Look for joint information-technology infrastructure across agencies, for starters; some planned overhead-surveillance systems may also be axed, including ones that intelligence professionals regard as “congressional ‘pet rocks.’ ”

Now contrast Clapper’s push for integration with the refusal of Congress to do the same thing in oversight of intelligence, as the 9/11 Commission recommended. Rather than consolidate authorization and appropriation in the House and Senate intelligence committees, as urged, the two remain separate. Worse, the intelligence budget remains hidden in the budgets for the Defense, Treasury, State and other departments.

These buried budgets don’t make sense anymore, when the unified national intelligence budget is a matter of public record. The Senate intelligence committee did recommend moving to a single intelligence appropriation for 2010, but this failed on the floor: Congress holds on to the old system to preserve its traditional turf.

“Congressional oversight for intelligence — and counterterrorism — is now dysfunctional,”the 9/11 Commission Report said. Oversight has improved modestly during the past seven years, but none of the commission’s major recommendations on Congress has been adopted. As the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaches, that’s a scandal.

davidignatius@washpost.com

 
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