The Senate's latest review of the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence on Iraq may be valuable, but our lawmakers' fixation on the rearview mirror will not strengthen our future intelligence capabilities. Those capabilities are at risk. I say that on the basis of experience; on Nov. 2, I retired after more than 25 years in the intelligence community, most of it with the Central Intelligence Agency. As I leave the government, I am worried that the current efforts to "transform" the intelligence community are hurting -- rather than improving -- our national security.
Don't get me wrong. Reform is needed to mesh the human and technical capabilities now scattered through the government. But instead of prompting greater integration, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the controversy over inaccurate intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq unleashed a torrent of conflicting study commissions, statutes, executive orders, presidential directives and departmental initiatives. What's still missing is a coherent framework of reform.
The confusion over responsibilities sown by this rush of initiatives has produced the equivalent of a soccer game played by 7-year-olds -- departments and agencies cluster around topical issues, bumping into each other and leaving important areas of the intelligence field dangerously unattended.
And that "field" of 21st-century intelligence challenges is both long and wide. It consists of perils that cross national boundaries, such as terrorism, weapons proliferation, narcotics trafficking and global pandemics. It includes economic matters, such as energy, currencies and trade. And it includes specific, geographically defined issues such as the growth of Islamic extremism in the United States, nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea, smuggling of people across U.S. land and sea borders, and the enormous socioeconomic problems in Africa. Each of these has interconnected components that require aggressive intelligence collection and analysis in order for us to understand the nature, scope and urgency of the challenges to our national security.
The government's response, to continue the soccer metaphor, has been to send more players onto the field and to pump steroids into those already wearing cleats. The result has been more and bigger bureaucratic squad members, adding to the tussles over who is responsible for covering which part of the intelligence terrain. For example, it is unclear which agency has the lead responsibility for assessing and thwarting the potential introduction of biological pathogens into the nation's food supply. Is it the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Agriculture Department or the National Counterterrorism Center? The answer "all of them" doesn't cut it, because, as the late Adm. Hyman G. Rickover reminded us: If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.
Besides wasting resources, the muddle among federal intelligence officials has baffled state and local law enforcement officials, who desperately want to share intelligence with their federal partners. For years, more than 100 FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) across the United States have coordinated activities and shared leads with state and local law enforcement and the many federal organizations involved in counterterrorism efforts. However, the JTTFs were not designed to share what folks in the business call analysis and situational awareness information -- the stuff that enables local police departments to decide whether to augment security at bridges, tunnels and downtown buildings. Does that responsibility now fall to the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI? The CIA and the Defense Department have their own contacts with state and local officials, but Langley and the Pentagon see sharing information with them as a service (almost a favor) rather than a responsibility for which they can be held accountable. Clearly, state and local officials aren't going to get any tips from the National Counterterrorism Center, which is prohibited by law from directly disseminating any information outside the federal family.
The intelligence teams have plenty of players but no overall game plan. Effective reform depends on something that doesn't exist yet -- a strategic plan. Without one that matches capabilities with responsibilities, individual agencies and departments won't be able to cover the intelligence field, scoring goals on offense and preventing goals on defense.
This plan would include some intentionally redundant capabilities so that the most important areas of the intelligence field -- such as stopping rogue nations or groups from acquiring weapons of mass destruction -- have double or even triple coverage. It also would keep individual parts of the intelligence community from building their own separate fiefdoms that would have little hope of connecting the dots that could reveal the "truth" about a weapons program or preventing another 9/11.
But, I hear you saying, "Wait a minute, didn't Congress, with the president's approval, just establish an intelligence czar to do all this?" Sadly, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), which mandated many of the changes now underway, lacks a clear vision. A hurried and flawed piece of legislation, the act used ambiguous language to describe the authority of the czar and other members of the intelligence community. The act also raised unrealistic expectations -- for example, about sharing electronic databases. The legislation calls for the creation within two years of a terrorism information-sharing "environment" that can be used by federal, state, local and even Native American tribal officials. But it does nothing to make sure agencies develop information systems that meet not just their own needs, but those of their partners.
The 9/11 and WMD commissions didn't come up with a strategic plan either. Instead they provided conflicting laundry lists of recommendations. The two commissions differed over how to tackle transnational issues such as terrorism and weapons proliferation. While the 9/11 Commission called for a large national counterterrorism center to have primary responsibility for terrorism analysis and strategic operational planning, the WMD commission called for a small national counterproliferation center to serve a staff function and orchestrate the work of others. The administration accepted both recommendations, and now the intelligence community is trying to figure out how to hard-wire two very dissimilar centers.
As director of national intelligence, John Negroponte is the chief engineer charged with fixing these structural problems. But he is expected to serve as the president's senior intelligence adviser and pressing intelligence issues will distract him from designing the much-needed strategic plan.
One way to accomplish his task would be to appoint a small team of organizational and intelligence experts led by distinguished individuals who would report directly to him. The team leader would have to be someone of the caliber and credibility of former senator Sam Nunn, who was instrumental in transforming the Defense Department from his seat on the Armed Services Committee; former secretary of state Colin Powell, who is intimately familiar with the cost of a faulty intelligence system; former senator Warren Rudman, who set the standard for tough, nonpartisan oversight of the intelligence community; or former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who has more common sense and experience than just about anyone in Washington.
Even with the best team and clearest of visions, however, remaking the intelligence community depends on several factors. First, there must be political and public acceptance that intelligence reform will not be fast, easy or inexpensive. It took Congress four years to adopt the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which directed the Pentagon to unite individual services -- with the help of billions of dollars -- into joint regional and functional commands. Intelligence transformation, much more complex because of the range of intelligence missions, needs a similar prolonged effort -- not the several months of wrangling that gave birth to the IRTPA.
Second, senior administration officials need to better understand the complexity of the intelligence business before they redesign the community. Most department and agency heads have only a narrow understanding of how intelligence works and the roles their organizations should play. And Congress needs more lawmakers like Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, who are willing to learn and to set aside partisan agendas. A two-year effort, with periodic briefings to administration officials and Congress, would educate policymakers and lawmakers while building support along the way.
Finally, the CIA needs to be helped out of its year-long tailspin. While far from perfect, the agency has contributed enormously to the nation's security over the past half-century. Making it a scapegoat for intelligence failures puts our security at risk.
When I turned in my CIA badge at Langley almost three weeks ago, the despondency of the agency's highly capable workforce, uncertain of its future role, was palpable. As I left the headquarters that afternoon, I was more convinced than ever that a civilian intelligence agency without a policy agenda is essential for the good of the nation. When Negroponte eventually presents President Bush and Congress with a plan, the CIA, under strong leadership, should be given a prominent position on the intelligence field.
John Brennan most recently served as the interim director of the National Counterterrorism Center. His earlier assignments included deputy executive director of the CIA, chief of staff to CIA director George Tenet and CIA station chief in the Middle East. He is president and CEO of The Analysis Corp., which does counterterrorism analysis and information technology for government agencies.