"You have a blank slate" to fix the CIA and other spy agencies, Sen. Pat Roberts told the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, this week. And that's true -- to a frightening extent. The future of U.S. intelligence is up for grabs, almost literally.
The uncertainty within the intelligence community was evident at a conference last week at Harvard, where 100 or so spooks gathered with a few academics and journalists to discuss ways to restructure intelligence for the 21st century. I wish Negroponte had been there to hear some of the ideas, and also to get a sense of just how disoriented intelligence professionals are these days. He's walking into a world where people aren't sure which end is up.
There's a certain gallows humor among CIA officials as they try to absorb devastating criticism from the Sept. 11 and WMD commissions. They know they screwed up, big time, and they'd like to try to fix the problems, if people would give them authority to do so. Asked about the agency's "corps," one CIA official mutters aloud that the questioner left off the "e." It should be "corpse." Says another: "Every time there's a mistake, everybody's jumping on the bandwagon and finding fault."
A senior intelligence official sums up the current mess: "We're in a pretty deep hole. We are perceived as incompetent. How do we dig out of that hole?" A former chairman of the Senate intelligence committee responds: "The intelligence community today is like the military after Vietnam. There was a lack of confidence back then among the public and within the military itself. It took 20 years to turn it around." A CIA official agrees: "It will take 15 or 20 years to dig ourselves out, but we've got to start."
It's time for Negroponte to start rebuilding, but how? The new structure he will oversee as director of national intelligence is the biggest mystery of all. Will his organization be the new center for intelligence analysis? If so, what will happen to the many hundreds of folks who work at the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence? Will the DNI's new National Counterterrorism Center be the focal point for anti-terrorism operations, effectively superseding the authority of the CIA's Directorate of Operations? Nobody seems to know the answers to these big questions, which is worrisome.
The legislation that created the DNI structure was initially proposed as a way to break down the walls that separated the CIA, the FBI and Pentagon collection arms such as the code-breaking National Security Agency. But the Pentagon and its congressional backers effectively blocked this effort to mandate "joint-ness" by inserting fuzzy language that protects the Pentagon's prerogatives. Does Negroponte really have the budget and personnel authority to impose one intelligence policy on the 15 organizations under him, as he asserted this week? Again, nobody really knows.
Perhaps the most honest comment was Negroponte's admission at his confirmation hearing that he can't yet draw a road map. "I am not prepared to describe in detail exactly how I plan to carry out the job," he told Roberts and the other members of the Senate intelligence committee.
Many good ideas for improving the intelligence process surfaced at the Harvard conference. The attendees suggested blue-sky proposals for redrawing the boxes and gave their hypothetical intelligence communities such names as "The Ecosystem," "The Network of Networks" and "Ibay." But frankly, I worry when the whole structure is up for debate this way. This isn't a corporate reengineering project. The country is at war.
What I fear most is that in the rush to reform intelligence, people will end up throwing money at the problems -- creating larger intelligence agencies, more layers of overlapping authority, more hands to pass the buck. And the dreadful mediocrity of the intelligence community -- which to me, sadly, is its most striking characteristic -- will get worse.
So here's a modest suggestion for Negroponte: When it comes to intelligence reform, less is more. We need fewer, smarter people who are empowered to take risks and make bold judgments. We don't need a proliferation of new, inexperienced intelligence officers overseas who will fill quotas by recruiting bogus agents who produce large volumes of low-quality intelligence. We need real spies, not "measurable metrics."
We need analysts who have the brains and guts to stand up to policymakers and tell them the truth, as opposed to what they want to hear. And we need a president who will admit how badly his administration misread Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, rather than hiding behind the mistakes of the CIA.