The report released yesterday contains a devastating portrayal of intelligence officers who often cannot be counted on to do their best without discomforting pressure from policymakers, and who are more concerned about preserving the status quo than with finding better ways to safeguard the nation.
The commission explicitly warned President Bush that he should expect intelligence agencies to attempt to undermine the authority of the new director of national intelligence. "They are some of the government's most headstrong agencies," the commission wrote Bush. "Sooner or later, they will try to run around -- or over -- the DNI. Then, only your determined backing will convince them that we cannot return to the old ways."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), right, sits with other members of the presidential panel that investigated U.S. intelligence before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
As policymakers search for ways to improve U.S. intelligence, one of the toughest obstacles they confront is the hardened psychological attitude against change, born of the spy business's secretive, insular nature, according to the commission's report.
This was revealed to the commission by "many insiders" who "admitted to us that [the intelligence community] has an almost perfect record of resisting external recommendations," the report said.
"I'm sure there are people plotting right now," said Melissa Boyle Mahle, a former CIA clandestine service officer who recently published a book about her experiences.
The commission thinks so, too. Although the intelligence agencies are full of talented, dedicated people, the report said, "they seem to be working harder and harder just to maintain a status quo that is increasingly irrelevant to the new challenges presented by weapons of mass destruction."
To wring the best work out of the agencies, the commission said, policymakers must pressure the intelligence community "to the point of discomfort."
"Analysts must be pressed to explain how much they don't know; the collection agencies must be pressed to explain why they don't have better information on key topics . . . no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternative might also be true."
As an example of recalcitrant thinking, the report said one person who drafted the widely discredited National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons programs told the commission, "if he had to grade it, he would still give the NIE an 'A.' "
That, the report said, shows how the "scope and quality of analysis has eroded badly," as have "tradecraft and training."
The commission also discovered that despite presidential directives to share information, "a turf battle raged" for more than a year between the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and the newer Terrorist Threat Integration Center (now the National Counterterrorist Center).
In June 2004, the director of the TTIC, which was supposed to function as the government's top threat analysis center, warned George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, that the center "was at the breaking point" and could not perform its mission because the CIA and other intelligence agencies refused to detail experienced officers to staff it.
Despite numerous communications between Tenet's top staff and the TTIC director trying to clarify roles and responsibilities, the "interagency squabbling" never ended, the report says.
"Time and again we have uncovered instances like this, where powerful agencies fight to a debilitating stalemate masked as consensus, because no one in the Community has been able to make a decision and then make it stick."
Former and current intelligence officials said the report echoed previous criticism by the Sept. 11 commission and a Senate panel's inquiry into prewar intelligence on Iraq, and that it gave too little credit to the changes the intelligence agencies have already undertaken.
"Whatever the shortcomings, I think the men and women of the intelligence community perform vastly better than this commission's report gives them credit for," said James L. Pavitt, a former CIA director of operations. He said intelligence will never be a perfect science and the report mistakenly implies the administration went to war because of the intelligence.
"The decision to go to war is not an intelligence decision. It's the decision of the commander in chief," Pavitt said. "We didn't go to war because of some refugee given the name 'Curveball.' " Curveball was the code name given to an Iraqi exile who convinced U.S. officials that Iraq had mobile biological weapons labs. It turned out he was a fabricator.
Mahle said the problem is larger than the CIA's culture. "The whole structure is set up to preserve the status quo," she said of the agency's hierarchy. "You have to break the back of the [CIA] chiefs of station" and regional directors, the traditional operations managers, "to force innovative thinking."