War Stories

The Long Intelligence Haul

Real reform doesn’t take five years. It takes a generation.

The lessons of 9/11 and of Iraq for intelligence reform are anything but consonant. The failure of American intelligence to prevent the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center was a false negative, in which analysts neglected to connect obliquely related dots and identify a threat where there was one. The rush to war in Iraq, on the other hand, represented a false positive, in which analysts too readily connected dots and saw a threat where there was none.

The weakness that got us into Iraq should be relatively easy to fix. The institutional pathologies that led to Sept. 11 are far more intractable, however, as testified by the Cs and Ds in the report card issued by the 9/11 commission last December. Reforming intelligence institutions—and institutional cultures—to avert false negatives in the future won’t take five years, or even 10. It will take a generation.

False positives are easier to guard against because when confronted with an apparent threat, analysts can focus their energies on a single target and weigh the credibility of each piece of the evidentiary puzzle. The danger is that political manipulation pollutes this process. This has long been a risk—think of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. But Vice President Dick Cheney’s repeated visits to the CIA before the war in Iraq marked an unusually bold perversion of the long-standing analytical process of American espionage. As Paul Pillar, who oversaw Iraq intelligence for the CIA from 2000 to 2005, wrote recently, “analysts … felt a strong wind consistently blowing in one direction. The desire to bend with such a wind is natural and strong.”

That strong wind had unquestionably calamitous results. But it was not a symptom of deeply engrained dysfunction. In fact, outside the Bush White House, there is near-universal agreement today that political pressure corrupts intelligence analysis. A report last month that administration officials are angry at America’s spies for failing to issue “more ominous” warnings about Iran—that rather than sexing the intel up, analysts were, in effect, sexing it down—suggests that our spies have already learned a thing or two from the Iraq debacle. That’s the good news.

But overhauling U.S. intelligence to better prevent false negatives represents a much greater challenge. A few central lessons have emerged from what CIA head Michael Hayden called the post-9/11 “archaeology” of intelligence failure. Chief among them is that the intelligence “community” is in fact a collection of warring fiefdoms, with each territorial agency disinclined to share intelligence with the rest. Traditionally, the director of the CIA was a walking conflict of interests—the titular leader of the whole community, on the one hand, and the boss of his own personal agency on the other.

The ambitious solution to this problem was a new entity, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was supposed to provide a “command structure” for the nation’s 16 spy agencies. Proposed by the 9/11 commission, the idea was politicized by the 2004 election and rapidly made law. It had critics from the start. But the clearest indictment of the new office was that nobody wanted the head job. It was a thankless one: The director of national intelligence would face a White House that had opposed the 9/11 commission and was lukewarm on reform, and, in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a bureaucratic heavyweight who controlled 80 percent of the intelligence budget and had prevailed against the last spy boss who encroached on his turf, former CIA Director George Tenet.

In fact, when President Bush finally found someone willing to be the nation’s top spy, it wasn’t a spy at all. Ambassador John Negroponte took office in February 2005, and it was unclear whether he represented an inspired, counterintuitive choice—a diplomat who could persuade others to play together nicely—or just the bottom of the barrel. Still, he was a marked improvement on Porter Goss, Bush’s spectacularly ineffectual choice to run the CIA. As the new chief liaison to the president, Negroponte relieved Goss of one of his key duties: delivering the president’s daily intelligence brief. Given that Goss was spending six hours a day preparing the brief, rather than chasing terrorists, this simple personnel change alone may have made the country safer.

But Goss resisted Negroponte’s effort to refocus the CIA and the “Gosslings,” as his arrogant and combative staffers became known, alienated numerous seasoned hands at the agency’s elite Directorate of Operations, prompting a devastating brain drain. So, Goss’ resignation in May affirmed both Negroponte’s willingness to flex his political muscle and his commitment to transformation.

The appointment of Michael Hayden to replace Goss was a promising sign. Hayden faced various detractors, most significantly because of his defense of the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program. But during his six years running the NSA he had ushered a hopelessly analog agency into the digital age and established his bona fides as someone capable of transforming a large organization. The surest sign that real reform was under way was the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center, a central clearinghouse for intelligence on terrorist threats. Sept. 11 happened, in part, because numerous different pieces of intelligence that in the aggregate might have sounded alarms were instead scattered across various offices and agencies. NCTC is controlled by Negroponte’s office, which means it’s independent of the 16 other agencies but accessible to them all. A single intelligence communitywide database is precisely the sort of innovation that can prevent false negatives like 9/11 in the future.

Still, by last spring Negroponte was worrying critics and supporters alike. Even in blueprint form, his office seemed in danger of mushrooming into yet another bureaucratic layer between intelligence gatherers and the White House. As Negroponte staffed up, aiming to expand to 1,500 employees, legislators feared that the lean and mean nerve center they had envisioned was becoming less a conduit than a clog. On the critical matter of intelligence-sharing, the 9/11 commission issued America’s spies a pair of Ds. A July assessment of intelligence reform by the House intelligence committee faulted Negroponte’s “incremental approach.”

But is it realistic to think that the ambitious overhaul of a professional community comprising 100,000 employees could be anything but incremental? “We established the national security structure in this country in 1947,” retired Adm. William Studeman told GovExec.com magazine last year. “And the intel community … took 10 or 20 years before it started to really run on all eight cylinders.” It will take decades to train linguists and analysts and case officers who are proficient enough in the languages and cultures of America’s terrorist adversaries to establish more than patchwork vigilance. And it will take longer still to undo a half-century of suspicion and territoriality and get our spies to share rather than hoard their information and capabilities.

It may be, as John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, recently worried, that another terrorist attack will blindside us while our spies are still “trying to figure out who works for who.” It may also be, as Judge Richard Posner has suggested, that no amount of tinkering with the organizational chart of the intelligence community will do away with “the inevitability of failure,” because false negatives are impossible to avoid.

But we’ve got to try. The lesson of Iraq for U.S. intelligence was that there is a way things have always been done—spies do their analysis independently and then provide it to policymakers—and we should not mess with it. Lesson learned. The lesson of 9/11, by contrast, is precisely that we should mess with the way things have always been done: that we should rebuild from the foundations. And five years after 9/11, that process—ambitious, frustrating, and utterly necessary—is still in its infancy.