America was badly wounded on Sept. 11, 2001. And while the fires of those attacks have been extinguished, deep, painful scars remain. The Sept. 11 commission was a critical part of the healing process, and its report is an important review of the strengths and shortcomings of the American intelligence community and of the nation itself before Sept. 11.
In his call to Congress to support creating the position of national director of intelligence and a national counterterrorism center, President Bush acknowledged the value of the commission by endorsing two of its key recommendations. Acting wisely, the president chose not to exercise executive privilege and instead opened the creation of these new positions to thoughtful debate and discussion between Congress and the White House. It is crucial in this election year, when virtually every issue is up for grabs, that America's intelligence structure not be reduced to yet another sound bite targeted at swing voters. Most important, the discussion of the future of American intelligence and counterterrorism must not distract from the ongoing effort by those on the front lines.
There is potential for good in the changes proposed by the president and the commission. But as the president himself acknowledged, the commission report does not have all the answers. Last weekend's detailed intelligence on al Qaeda's continuing plans to target America and the world's financial institutions reminds us that despite huge improvements in our intelligence capabilities and the strides we have taken in eliminating our terrorist enemies, the threat remains. While we must strive to make America safer in every way possible, we must avoid a rush to change for the sake of change.
I sincerely urge those who, with the best intentions, seek to heal the nation's wounds and improve the intelligence community, to adopt the ancient medical dictum of "first, do no harm." If we rush to implement sweeping change, especially at a time when the threats to America are as great or greater than they have been at any time since Sept. 11, we may do more harm than good.
The findings of the commission detail many failings of our nation in the years before the attacks. The CIA, FBI, Congress and two administrations could and should have done better. After Sept. 11, all of us in the intelligence business took a hard look at how we were doing things, then broke molds, tossed out old paradigms and found new ways to do our jobs. The nation also learned that a decade of neglect, of budgets not big enough and policy attention not forceful enough, came with an extraordinary price. There is horrid irony in one of the primary findings of the commission: that there is a need for significant strengthening of human intelligence. Human intelligence capabilities were badly depleted during the 1990s because of significant budget reduction and personnel cutbacks. The post-Cold War "peace dividend" resulted in a 30 percent decline in funding for the CIA's Directorate of Operations, the men and women in the clandestine service who penetrate terrorist networks, recruit spies and steal secrets, and a personnel downsizing of nearly 20 percent.
Human intelligence needs to be better funded, and the number of operations officers must grow significantly. That argument was made forcefully by me and by George Tenet, the former director of central intelligence. But there was little active support for our effort to expand the human service, despite aggressive lobbying of Congress. Budget surges came only after our embassies in East Africa were hit and the USS Cole attacked, and then in the form of one-year supplemental money. Only after Sept. 11 did Congress join the administration to provide funding to start -- emphasis on the word "start" -- rebuilding human intelligence capabilities.
The United States arguably faces more insidious and complex threats today than when the CIA was founded in 1947. To meet those threats we must change, and we have. Cooperation between the CIA and the FBI has never been better; the link between the military and intelligence operator on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans and in the global war on terror has never been more seamless. The CIA cannot herald all its achievements, but the fact is, and the Sept. 11 commission so noted, the intelligence services of the United States, with the CIA leading the effort, collected the information that led to the capture, death or removal of more than two-thirds of al Qaeda's top leadership. Attacks have been thwarted, many lives have been saved, and the fight has been taken directly to those who threaten our citizens and our country.
And most recently, through the work of CIA officers and their foreign liaison partners, our nation is aware of our enemies' most recent plots in great detail. We are on the offensive, and intelligence is leading the way.
That we need to do intelligence better is not in question. But we need to act thoughtfully and not harm U.S. national security in some vain effort to perfect the country's intelligence capabilities. Intel- ligence can never be perfect. It provides only a glimpse through the fog at the ca- pabilities, intentions and plans of our adversaries.
The picture is clearer now than before Sept. 11 and is getting clearer, but the fog never completely disappears. Better intelligence performance is needed, is essential and is rightly demanded. But better is not perfect, and perfect is not possible.
The writer retired this week as the CIA's deputy director for operations.