Getting Spy Reform Wrong

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By John Lehman
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

It has been more than four years since the surprise attack on the World Trade Center, the worst failure of American defenses since Pearl Harbor. Within four years of Pearl Harbor we had created, staffed and deployed the Office of Strategic Services, a new and effective intelligence agency. We had destroyed the land, sea and air forces of Japan, and, with our allies, the armed forces and government of Nazi Germany. We had retaken the continent of Europe and received the unconditional surrender of all our enemies.

Since Sept. 11 there's been no real action to fix our government's most glaring failure: the dysfunctional intelligence bureaucracies whose incompetence exposed us to surprise attack. Not a single person has been disciplined, and most have been promoted.

Sixteen months ago, after a year and a half of investigation and analysis, the five Republicans and five Democrats of the Sept. 11 commission unanimously approved 41 hard-hitting recommendations for urgent reform. Priority was given to the need to rebuild the bloated and failed intelligence bureaucracies. The commission had a straightforward vision: We wanted a strong national intelligence director to smash bureaucratic layers, tear down information "stovepipes" and rewrite personnel policy to bring in the best people -- not only from the career bureaucracy but from the private sector -- to act quickly and decisively on the president's priorities.

We knew this would not by itself fix U.S. intelligence. The threats we face today require a new culture: new approaches to analysis, espionage, the way we use technology and just about every other aspect of intelligence operations. But we knew that such improvements could not happen without a clean, strong top-level management structure. Congress acted quickly on our recommendations, and passed the Intelligence Reform Act last December.

Nine months ago President Bush appointed John Negroponte to be the first director of national intelligence. Negroponte is perhaps the finest career diplomat in the government. But instead of the lean structure recommended by the commission, with a small but powerful staff based on just three deputies (one each for foreign, domestic and military intelligence), the administration reached all the way back to the McNamara years to create a huge new staff to sit on top of the old and still bloated bureaucracies. The result is that little has changed -- except that a new bureaucracy has been created. And although the Sept. 11 commission identified the urgent need for better people, better collection, better analysis and better information sharing, nearly every person in this new bureaucracy has been drawn from the career services. Far from bringing in outsiders with fresh perspectives, the bureaucracy has, in effect, repelled all boarders.

Negroponte and his deputy, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, are trying to implement some of our reform recommendations, such as the use of much more open-source intelligence (e.g., reading foreign newspapers). But in every case the implementation creates another box on the organization chart and yet another layer of bureaucracy. When it comes to staff, usually more is less: Authority is spread so thinly that no one can say yes and too many people can say no. Management becomes detached from what is going on in the field, the labs and the analytic shops. The result is delay and indecision -- exactly what we saw before Sept. 11.

Innovators and risk-takers don't join organizations just to fill an executive office or get a close-in parking space. They join because they want to take action or take command. Big bureaucracies don't offer those opportunities. They are all about process, not results. The Sept. 11 commission proposal would have had every head of an intelligence agency reporting to one of the DNI's deputies. The national director would have one deputy responsible for making sure that each agency followed his direction.

But the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence has a principal deputy director, four deputy directors, three associate directors and no fewer than 19 assistant deputy directors. If you are, say, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, who is your boss -- the assistant deputy director for national technical means? Or is it the assistant deputy director for acquisition or the associate director for science and technology? From whom do you need to get approval to build a new satellite? And whom do the president and Congress hold accountable?

Meanwhile, homeland intelligence -- that critical function between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence -- seems to have fallen through the cracks. Where, in the proposed management structure, is the official who is supposed to create this new capability?

The administration just does not seem to get it. It appears to have a childlike belief that creating a new bureaucracy is the solution to every problem. Creation of the Department of Homeland Security has not improved our homeland intelligence. The bureaucratic method was amply demonstrated when DHS held 150 firefighters for three days in Atlanta while people died in New Orleans, so that the firefighters could be given the requisite instruction in avoiding sexual harassment. That's all about process, not results.

The administration has duly reported that it has responded to almost all of the recommendations proposed by the Sept. 11 commission and the commission on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But intelligence reform is more than checking off a matrix of action items that consist of enlarging and renaming staffs and playing musical chairs with career bureaucrats. Reform requires inspiring leadership, bold vision and, above all, decisive action. We have not seen it.

The writer, who served as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, was a member of the Sept. 11 commission.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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