War Stories

Red Herrings

Can the CIA be saved?

Tenet: too late now

The CIA screwed up. That’s the ho-hum summation of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 512-page report, released with fanfare today after a 12-month inquiry (a duration “without precedent,” beamed the Republican chairman, Pat Roberts). The report uncorks a geyser of detail about the agency’s failures but keeps the two most important questions of the day bottled up: Did the CIA’s mistakes, especially about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, stem from political pressures? And what can be done to improve the agency’s handling of warnings and threats now?

On the first question, the committee, to its shame, played word games. The report—approved unanimously—states there were no political pressures; the Bush administration went to war on the basis of CIA estimates, which turned out to be mistaken. But at this morning’s press conference, the committee’s ranking Democrat, John D. Rockefeller IV, said it all depends what the meaning of “pressures” is. True, nobody told the CIA to toughen its analysis of Iraq’s nuclear program. But, he said, there was clearly an “environment of intense pressure” from the White House and the Pentagon.

Chairman Roberts promised such matters would be explored further after more hearings—or, as others prefer to interpret this timetable, after the presidential election.

As for the second question, how to repair the CIA after the nation’s biggest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, both men cleared their throats forthrightly. “There must be reform,” Roberts intoned. “We intend to examine closely all proposals for change, while avoiding the law of unintended consequences.” Rockefeller practically pounded the podium: “We’ve got to do it right, but we’ve got to do it fast.”

Good to see they’ve got that straight after three years of mulling.

Yes, yes, it’s easy to be snarky. Dozens of commissions and scholars, even a president or two, have set out to renovate the creaky mansion of the U.S. intelligence “community” with all its insular inhabitants—the CIA, DIA, NSA, FBI, NRO, etc., to say nothing of their various subcultures wriggling about in the attic and the cellar—and have come away shaking just from the preliminary inspection.

In other words, this one is—to pile another cliché on the plethora—a tough nut to crack.

First, let us deal with a common, but terrible, proposal for reform—”red teams.” The idea is to hire a team of “contrarian analysts” who challenge every major intelligence estimate just to make sure that all the right questions have been asked and all the possible interpretations have been contemplated.

The idea comes from war games, in which independent (often retired) officers are assigned to play the role of the enemy commander (the “red team”)—and are explicitly told to devise unusual tactics—against the real U.S. commander (in the game, the “blue team”). It’s a good idea for war planning; used properly, it tests the flexibility of our armed forces, trains senior officers to deal with surprise, and keeps them from getting trapped in “group-think.”

For intelligence analysis, the idea is doomed to be a diversion at best, a source of huge strain at worst. The classic case of CIA red teaming is the “Team B” exercise in 1976, toward the end of Gerald Ford’s presidency. A group of hawkish defense analysts were complaining that the CIA was far too dovish in its analysis of the Soviet nuclear threat. George H.W. Bush, who was CIA director at the time, reluctantly agreed to let them set up a Team B to examine the same raw intelligence data from a different angle—it would just be an interesting exercise, he was assured—and soon regretted the indulgence. Team B concluded that the Soviets were developing charged-particle-beam missile defenses, had bigger and more accurate warheads, were spending a lot more money on offensive warfare, and intended to launch a disarming first strike against U.S. nuclear forces. Team B’s leaders then leaked their findings to the press, and, when Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976, used the resulting stories to bash every effort at arms control and détente. In 1980, Ronald Reagan adopted the attacks as his own and hired many of its authors or popularizers as high-ranking defense officials.

In retrospect, the Team B report (which has since been declassified) turns out to have been wrong on nearly every point, while the CIA’s reports in those same years look pretty good.

A permanent CIA red team can be counted on to craft similar tactics (the best contrarians tend to be crusaders). At minimum, opposition senators, inquiring about the latest hot topic, will demand to see the “red team” report along with the official CIA estimate. The alternative scenario is that the red team will be defanged, staffed with milquetoasts or loyalists whose views can easily be dismissed. This is how Lyndon Johnson handled George Ball, the assistant secretary of state and lone high-ranking critic of the Vietnam War: LBJ would invite Ball to the meeting where he, Robert McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs would decide to send in 150,000 more troops; he’d solicit Ball’s views; Ball would voice his critique; then LBJ sent the troops and said opposing views had been considered.

In short, institutionalized dissidents can form their own constituencies or be neutered. Both tendencies are dangerous and wasteful.

A more useful, even vital, goal of intelligence renovation is to break down some walls so that the agencies can share data—or so that, say, the National Security Agency (which intercepts communications intelligence) can ask if a spy from the Central Intelligence Agency can go plant a bug on some telephone in Syria.

This notion may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it simple. For instance, much has been said—most emphatically during the 9/11 commission’s hearings—about the “brick wall” between the CIA’s intelligence collectors and the FBI’s law enforcers. There was, at least at one time, a legal rationale for erecting this wall. But there’s also a wall, no less permeable, between the CIA’s directorate of intelligence, which analyzes all the data, and the CIA’s directorate of operations, the clandestine shop that collects human intelligence—i.e., trains, runs, and recruits spies.

Flynt Leverett, a former CIA senior analyst now at the Brookings Institution, has a highly instructive op-ed piece in today’s New York Times discussing such barriers (and suggesting how at least to punch holes in them). He told me in a phone conversation this morning that he personally has seen three CIA directors “flinch” from the prospect of trying to bring the intelligence and operations directorates together—not to fuse them, just to get them to exchange information or simply to “co-locate” their offices in the same corridor of CIA headquarters.

What’s this about? The directorate of operations thrives on the idea that it is the agency’s “cutting edge”; it values this image, and the turf that goes with it, above all else. The CIA’s director—on paper, the boss—has to work with the DO every day and doesn’t want to cause agitation by stepping on that turf.

And these are people who share the broader culture of the CIA. Imagine the dissonances involved in integrating cultures whose rank and file have long been ingrained to view one another as aliens, often hostile aliens.

Many experts say the way to overcome this paralyzing parochialism is to turn the CIA director into a czar: Give him an office in the West Wing and put him—and an ample staff—in charge of the entire intelligence community. The problem with this idea is that the CIA director already has the statutory power to do this; his formal title is director of central intelligence; the very point of creating the CIA (the Central Intelligence Agency) after World War II was precisely to centralize the myriad spy agencies in one command to prevent another Pearl Harbor. And yet no DCI has ever had the real power implied in the statutes. Political power requires troops, resources, mutual loyalties; they must be earned, built up, and cultivated. As Tom Ridge has learned, simply being plopped at the helm of a new “superagency” doesn’t place you in true command.

Leverett offers a good, feasible, and maybe partly effective proposal in his Times piece: Set up joint intelligence commands for specific “targets.” There might be specific commands to provide intelligence on, say, al-Qaida, nuclear proliferation, Middle Eastern stability, or whatever. A new national intelligence director would have the power to draw on personnel and resources from all the intelligence agencies to work together on that topic in those commands, which would report directly to him.

The model for this idea is the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which reformed the armed forces. It made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, till then practically an administrative post, into the president’s chief military adviser and created inter-service operational commands defined by region and function. Goldwater-Nichols is what allowed the creation of Central Command, which controls all U.S. forces around the Persian Gulf, and Special Forces Command, which unified the individual services’ special forces units. On a day-to-day basis, the old structure of the three services prevails; but in crucial matters—like fighting wars—the chairman and the operational commands truly rule. The United States fights wars a lot better as a result. If the intelligence community were reorganized in similar fashion, it might gather data and detect threats a lot more effectively, too.

Ultimately, though, we must return to the first question that the Senate Intelligence Committee still needs to address: Did the CIA’s faulty analysis stem from political pressures? If a president wants a certain conclusion to be reached, no amount of restructuring is going to block that. The CIA will never be a strictly technical outfit, like the IRS or the Bureau of Labor Statistics; nor should it be. It will unavoidably answer to political powers—about where to orbit the spy satellite, which phones to tap, which borders to monitor, and so forth. The most important condition for good intelligence is a presidency with good leadership.