What the Admiral Doesn't Say

By Amy Zegart
Friday, July 13, 2007; 12:00 AM

Admiral Redd suggests that U.S. intelligence agencies have made substantial progress since 9/11. He's right. But with all due respect, that's not saying much.

Consider the National Counterterrorism Center, which the admiral directs. Widely considered the poster child of intelligence reform, NCTC provides a critical hub of terrorist threat reporting and a marked improvement over the fragmented system that existed on Sept. 10, 2001. As Redd notes, representatives from all 16 federal intelligence agencies now sit side by side, reviewing terrorist threat information from Cairo to Kansas each day. All that sounds good.

But Redd neglects to mention that only two of these agencies -- the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency -- have serious experience conducting all-source analysis; all the other representatives dispatched to NCTC have been learning on the job. What's more, different people from different agencies still see different pieces of information. Until recently NCTC's "one team" neglected to include anyone representing state and local agencies, crucial partners in our domestic counterterrorism effort. And fusing intelligence is done more by humans than computers; analysts must gather information from 30 different information systems by using a half-dozen different computers stacked underneath their desks. The joke at NCTC is that everyone has warm ankles from the heat generated by all those incompatible machines. Is NCTC a dramatic improvement? You bet. Is it where it needs to be? No way.

Information sharing everywhere else is worse. Last summer, a bipartisan expert report by the Markle Foundation found that counterterrorism information sharing across the government continued to be hampered by "turf wars and unclear lines of authority," officials who "still cling" to old ways of doing business, and a diminishing sense of urgency and commitment. The task force concluded that despite dozens of initiatives, guidelines, and statutory requirements, "systematic, trusted information sharing remains more of an aspiration than a reality."

In January 2007, the Intelligence Community's chief information officer, Maj. Gen. Dale Meyerrose, offered a similarly discouraging progress report. "The policy that's in place took three years to write, four years to coordinate, and we've not touched it in five," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee. Although Meyerrose noted that his office had been working hard to improve information sharing and that he expected progress on a number of fronts in 2007, he underscored that "most of the sharing issues we face are cultural and process rather than technology." Those are not encouraging words.

I agree that the daily grind of intelligence matters. That's what scares me. Out in the field, where it counts most, FBI analysts are still only notional partners in the Bureau's transformation from law enforcement to domestic intelligence agency. FBI rules still mandate that the top spot in every field office be staffed by FBI special agents -- or in the words of one bureau official, the people who "carry the guns and risk their lives." These promotion rules mean that analysts, however talented and valued, must do battle from below, convincing their special agent superiors that chasing information has as much value as chasing suspects. As one analyst told me, despite the FBI's progress since 9/11, "outreach to our own agency" remains an ongoing frustration.

Redd suggests that if I paid less attention to theory and more attention to facts, I would have a different view of U.S. counterterrorism intelligence. I couldn't disagree more. For him, theory is a dirty word. For me, it is a vital tool that helps identify the underlying problems that continue to vex U.S. intelligence professionals nearly 16 years after the Cold War and six years after 9/11. The real issue here isn't facts, but interpretation. From improved watch lists to the absence of terrorist attacks, Redd provides a "glass is half full" perspective. I applaud his work and his optimism. But he should not dismiss my pessimism.

Make no mistake: Despite tremendous effort and substantial progress, the sad fact is that all the worst organizational deficiencies that hampered U.S. intelligence before 9/11 are still here. It is only by focusing on the half-empty glass -- on these lingering organizational problems and their root causes -- that Redd and other intelligence professionals will succeed in keeping us all safe.

Amy Zegart is associate professor of public policy at UCLA and the author of the forthcoming "Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI and the Origins of 9/11."

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