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Fix the Intelligence Mess

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By David Ignatius
Friday, April 21, 2006

For the U.S. intelligence community, the warning lights are blinking red. A reorganization that was supposed to bring greater coordination has instead produced a layering of responsibilities and bureaucratic confusion. A demoralized CIA that needed professional management is chafing under a Republican former congressman who has proved to be the most political and ineffective director in the agency's history.

Look at the organizational chart of the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence and you wonder if America has become a Third World country with a rival intelligence agency for each patch of turf. At last count, there were 16 different spy units under the DNI's umbrella -- a number that puts even Syria to shame. In theory, this flotilla of spy agencies is being supervised by a deputy responsible for "customer outcomes," whatever that means, and three other deputy directors. The organization chart gives each of the four a peppy two-word mission statement: "Want It," "Know It," "Get It" and "Build It."

I'd like to suggest a new mission for John Negroponte, the man who sits atop this intelligence ziggurat: "Fix It." One year on, the intelligence reorganization isn't working. It has overanalyzed the little problems without solving the big ones. It hasn't succeeded in coordinating the various agencies, and it has allowed the biggest problem of all -- the disarray at the CIA -- to get even worse. I'm told that several foreign intelligence services have recently observed a decline in CIA performance, which should scare us all.

"The reorganization reshuffled rather than augmented the nation's federal intelligence personnel," Richard A. Posner, a federal appeals court judge who knows the intelligence world well, argued in a speech in March to a gathering of CIA lawyers. He said of the DNI structure: "It has become a new bureaucracy layered on top of the intelligence community, a new agency on top of the fifteen or more previously existing agencies." According to The Post's Walter Pincus, Negroponte's budget is nearing $1 billion -- about five times what was previously spent for intelligence-community management. His staff is now 1,539 people, about twice what was expected.

The intelligence mess is serious enough that it has triggered a quiet investigation by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a secretive blue-ribbon panel that advises the White House. The group's new chairman is Stephen Friedman, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs and former White House economic adviser. Other luminaries on the 16-member panel are former senator Charles Robb, former representative Lee Hamilton and retired Adm. David E. Jeremiah.

I'm told the intelligence board has summoned a series of top current and former officials in recent weeks to get a handle on the problems at the CIA and DNI. "They are trying to get a sense of what is really going on and how bad it is," says one intelligence insider. Because many of the board members have run big companies, they are said to be applying management metrics to the crazy quilt of the reorganization.

The Bush administration, unfortunately, is a big part of what's wrong. From the start, officials close to Vice President Cheney viewed a moribund, risk-averse CIA as an obstacle to their goals. Certainly the CIA made mistakes, especially in its assessment of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but that's not why it was punished. It became a political whipping boy for the right wing largely because it tried to tell the truth on two key issues: alleged Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Niger and alleged Iraqi operational links with al-Qaeda. On both, CIA analysts repeatedly warned the administration that the evidence didn't support its conclusions, yet the vice president's office kept coming back and telling them to take another look. The CIA issued a secret paper in January 2003 saying that there was no Iraqi authority, control or direction over al-Qaeda. Yet the political pressure continued.

Negroponte defended his performance in a speech yesterday at the National Press Club, and one can only wish him well. He has a huge job: The CIA has lost a generation of senior managers, burned off by Porter Goss and his political aides in a senseless vendetta. Dissatisfaction is growing in the middle ranks. Operations officers are looking over their shoulders; analysts are looking at the proliferating bureaucracies and wondering where to try to make their careers; and terrorism specialists are torn between the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and the DNI's National Counterterrorism Center. We don't have enough good spies to afford this confusion.

You would have thought it was impossible to make our intelligence problems even worse, but the Bush administration has accomplished that. This is a dangerous situation for the country, and it needs to be fixed, now.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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