President Bush, the son of a former CIA director, has embraced a short-term fix for the CIA that -- surprise! -- gives the CIA director more power. But that's just a Band-Aid. The real issue is whether the United States needs a fundamental restructuring of its intelligence agencies, as recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.
The wild card in the intelligence reform debate is a proposal by Sen. Pat Roberts, which I would bluntly describe as the "blow it up" option. The Kansas Republican would dismantle the CIA and divide its work among three new spy agencies -- one for clandestine operations, one for analysis and one for science and technology.
Roberts would also blow up the military's spy services. He would take the code-breaking National Security Agency and other surveillance units out of the Pentagon and put them under the control of a new national intelligence director. And for good measure Roberts would partly detonate the FBI's counterintelligence activities by placing them under the new intelligence czar.
The intelligence mandarins at the Pentagon and the CIA have been howling about Roberts's plan, understandably. Former CIA director George Tenet accused Roberts and other would-be reformers of "a mad rush to rearrange wiring diagrams in an attempt to be seen as doing something. It is time for someone to say, 'Stop!' Someone needs to stand up for all the good that is done by the men and women of the CIA."
I share Tenet's worry that a rush to reorganize intelligence in this election year is risky. This is a time for a searching debate, not willy-nilly reorganization. But the Sept. 11 commission created a rare bipartisan drive for change, and it would be a mistake not to seize the moment and consider alternatives to the status quo.
Watching the intelligence chiefs circle the wagons to protect their turf, I'm even more inclined to give Roberts's proposal a careful look. The issue isn't, as Tenet implies, protecting the morale of CIA personnel but protecting the national security of the United States. Tenet's great strength has always been that he stands by his troops, but he and other intelligence veterans need to move beyond that defensive crouch and think creatively: How can America best organize its intelligence activities to survive in a dangerous world? Arguably, Roberts would be doing the nation's intelligence officers a favor by jettisoning those three loaded initials. After so many years of being attacked, the agency has a permanent "Kick Me" sign attached to its derriere. The CIA name carries much glory, but also the burden of past scandals and recent intelligence failures -- not to mention decades of loony Hollywood spy movies.
So what are the arguments for blowing it up and starting over? First, there would be a chance to make Roberts's proposed "National Clandestine Service" truly clandestine. That's something America really hasn't had with the CIA's Directorate of Operations. Our spies have tended to be posted overseas in embassies or other "official" cover jobs, and while there have been many efforts to make more use of "non-official-cover" spies, or "NOCs," insiders say they haven't been very effective. What America needs is something closer to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service -- that is, a spy agency that really is secret.
There would also be benefits from blowing up the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, which is responsible for analysis. The DI analysts work hard, but their product is too often mediocre. They have labored in the shadow of the sexier Directorate of Operations, and, insiders say, they've had trouble developing an elite culture of their own. America's intelligence analysts should be a match for the best college faculty in the world. They're far from that now, and life outside the CIA cocoon might do them some good.
The same gains could come from cutting science and technology loose from the embrace of the CIA bureaucracy. The United States has survived the past 60 years on the brainpower of the scientists who worked with the CIA and other agencies to mobilize technology to win the Cold War. But insiders say some of that technological edge has been lost. That's worrisome. The CIA laudably created its own venture capital firm a few years ago, but the country needs more intellectual capital on the inside. The NSA, too, could benefit from more distance from the Pentagon and its numbing system of fitness reports and military bureaucracy. NSA leaders turned to outside contractors several years ago to adapt their technology to the 21st century. Maybe the agency could use more of that cross-fertilization.
Blowing up the existing structure of U.S. intelligence may not be the answer. But it's worth debating. And that's really the point: America's future security rests on getting intelligence right. That means avoiding a rush to reform -- but it also means considering some bold ideas.