War Stories

Dick Nixed It

Is this why Bush’s intelligence-czar plan is so half-hearted?

President Bush has only tepidly endorsed the 9/11 commission’s proposal for a new centralized director of national intelligence, and now we have an explanation for his half-heartedness. It seems that back in 1992, when he was secretary of defense, Dick Cheney virulently opposed an uncannily similar notion.

The House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee were considering bills that would have created a director of national intelligence who would have statutory authority over programs, personnel, and budgets across the entire “intelligence community”—much the same as Thomas Kean’s panel is urging now, 12 years (and at least as many intelligence failures) later.

On March 17, 1992, Cheney wrote a letter of protest to Rep. Les Aspin, the House committee’s Democratic chairman at the time, saying he would urge the president—George Bush’s father—to veto the entire defense authorization act if it contained this “unnecessary” and “severely flawed” structural change.

The letter—unearthed by Open Source Solution and reprinted this week on Steven Aftergood’s invaluable Secrecy News Web site—makes for particularly poignant reading. If Cheney hadn’t successfully blocked the measure (his letter moved Aspin to drop it), one of the 9/11 commission’s most urgently advanced proposals might have been in place for over a decade before the terrorist attacks.

Yet the letter is also a pertinent document in today’s debate, as it illustrates the bureaucratic mountains that must be moved if anyone decides to take the idea seriously.

Cheney first simply stated the obvious. The bills, he said, “would unwisely create an ‘intelligence czar.’ ” True, “czar” is an apt description. As for “unwisely,” Cheney goes on: “The roles of the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence have evolved in a fashion that meets national, departmental, and tactical intelligence needs.” The bills “could seriously impair the effectiveness of this arrangement by assigning inappropriate authority to the proposed Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who would become the director and manager of internal DoD [Department of Defense] activities that in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness must remain under the authority, direction, and control of the Secretary of Defense.”

To decipher this gobbledygook, it is worth noting that the secretary of defense at the time controlled—and still controls today—about 80 percent of the intelligence budget. The bills before the congressional committees in 1992—like the recommendations by the 9/11 commission today—called for stripping away a great deal of his power and probably around $30 billion in budget authority.

So, when Cheney wrote Aspin that the “roles” of the defense secretary and the CIA director “have evolved in a fashion” that meets “departmental” needs, he meant that the DoD and the CIA long ago reached an understanding about how to divvy up the money and the power. And when he wrote that the bills “could seriously impair the effectiveness of the arrangement,” he meant that this understanding would fall apart—and bureaucratic war would break out—if some new guy were to get control over both agencies.

A supplemental letter to Aspin, by Chester Paul Beach, the Pentagon’s acting general counsel at the time, stated the matter more clearly. The bills, he wrote, would give the new DNI “far more extensive authority and responsibilities for program and budget matters than is now exercised by the DCI [the director of the CIA]. The proposals would remove the Secretary of Defense from the process, although DoD resources represent about four-fifths of the [national intelligence budget].”

The suggestion is unmistakable: Pass this bill, and you’ve got a riot on your hands at the Pentagon and at Langley.

Several intelligence and defense officials have already spoken out against the 9/11 commission’s call for a centralized director—and for much the same reasons.

There are substantive grounds for opposition. Cheney made one such argument in his letter to Aspin. Centralization, he wrote, “would inhibit competitive analysis and thus threaten the integrity of the intelligence product and prevent competing analytical views from coming to the attention of senior decision-makers. … Better national-security decisions result when the full range of intelligence analysis is considered.”

Vice President Cheney should have been reminded of those words a year and a half ago, when he and his friends across the river in the Pentagon were doing all they could to suppress the “competing analytical views” that raised doubts about whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or meaningful ties to al-Qaida. Be that as it may, his 1992 point remains valid. Intelligence analysis should always remain decentralized and competitive.

This past week, President Bush announced that he was creating a national intelligence director, but his concept of the job differs radically from what the 9/11 commission has in mind or what Congress was considering a dozen years ago. Bush’s NID is strictly advisory in nature, with no Cabinet slot, no office in the West Wing, no authority over priorities, personnel, or budgets. It’s worse than useless; whoever takes the job can expect nothing more than glorified paper-pushing.

With the release of the 1992 letter, it’s easy to see Cheney’s fingerprints all over Bush’s proposal. This time, he’s also protecting the institutional interests of Donald Rumsfeld, his longtime friend in charge of the Pentagon. The added twist here is that by co-opting the commission’s title while ignoring its portfolio, they seem to be trying to stave off further pressures to make meaningful structural changes.