If the NATO bombing of Kosovo drags into the summer, the Pentagon's talking head corps could find itself minus one of its leading men, Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, who is scheduled to take command of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in late July.
Now head of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Wilson has emerged as a press favorite during the Kosovo crisis for briefings that have been informative and cogent--qualities in demand over at DIA headquarters.
One Capitol Hill source who follows intelligence community issues calls the DIA "a competent organization, but it doesn't really sparkle."
Retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, now a bestselling novelist and outspoken critic of military intelligence, is far more blunt. "The quality [of analysis at DIA] is pedestrian at best--it goes from ludicrous to pedestrian," Peters said yesterday in an interview. "You rarely see breakthrough analysis coming out."
To spark a turnaround, Peters believes, Wilson must begin the long-term work of attracting, training, motivating and rewarding quality analysts. The agency can hire smart young people coming out of college for entry-level analysts' jobs, Peters said, but by the time they're 38, the pay is still meager and the rewards slim. The best quit or go into management.
"We don't value analysts," Peters said. "We value stuff you can buy. . . . We'll spend billions on the satellites and pay the kid analyzing the photos $27,000 a year. I'd gladly give up some systems for better analysts. A good analyst can pull acorns out of the fire."
Wilson graduated from Ohio State University in 1968 and received his commission as a naval officer the following year. He has a master's degree in management from Webster College and graduated with distinction from the Defense Intelligence College in 1975. Before heading intelligence for the Joint Chiefs, he served as associate director of central intelligence for military support.
Europe's preoccupation with Echelon, a global operation for intercepting electronic communications run by the National Security Agency and its spy partners in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, has finally spread to America.
Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) sought and won an amendment to the Intelligence Reauthorization Act last month in the House to require the NSA, the CIA and the FBI to report to Congress on current legal standards followed for intercepting calls by American citizens. The amendment hasn't been accepted yet by the Senate.
"Law-abiding Americans are engaging in more and more communications, using exciting new technologies, such as mobile phones, e-mail, facsimiles, and the Internet," Barr said. "However . . . these same law-abiding citizens are increasingly exposed to government surveillance. I am extremely concerned there are not sufficient legal mechanisms in place to protect our private information from unauthorized government eavesdropping through such mechanisms as Project Echelon."
Barr cited a January 1998 report by the European Parliament that found that the NSA and its Echelon partners routinely intercept 2 million transmissions an hour around the globe.
The NSA is prohibited by law from intercepting communications by American citizens in the United States, but communications involving Americans that originate overseas are fair game.
"NSA operates in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations in protecting the privacy rights of U.S. persons," the agency said in a statement. "If this amendment is passed, NSA looks forward to working with the [director of central intelligence] and [the attorney general] in filing the appropriate report that the statute requires."
The Central Intelligence Agency is looking for a few good "perception management" analysts. According to the CIA Web site, perception management is the study "of how foreign entities attempt to mislead U.S. intelligence and policymakers on critical national security issues." Maybe the House select committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) needed one among its staff of 45 to fathom why Chinese intelligence would send a double-agent to the CIA carrying a document containing classified U.S. nuclear warhead information.
Former CIA scientist Allen Thomson, one of the wisest intelligence observers around, shakes his head at the thought of such work. "This job," Thomson says, "sounds like a quick but painful way to commit suicide."