Proposals for sweeping reform of the CIA are circulating through the Capitol in advance of next month's release of the 9/11 commission's report and its excruciating details of intelligence failures. The cures, unfortunately, are almost certainly worse than the disease.
Chief among them is creating a new director of national intelligence, urged by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft. There's no proof that such a post would improve intelligence flows, but it would definitely add a new layer of bureaucracy.
In theory, an intelligence czar with budgetary authority, independent of the CIA, could shake up agencies stuck in a Cold War mind-set of one big enemy rather than autonomous terrorist threats. But although Congress could create a new intelligence head, who would obey him or her? Consider the Department of Homeland Security, which has yet to play a serious role in threat assessments. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has simply ignored it in issuing terror attack warnings. The Pentagon jealously guards its multiple intelligence programs, which receive an estimated $11 billion annually, while the CIA receives a little more than $3 billion.
The 9/11 disaster occurred partly because of intelligence hoarding by the FBI and CIA, which regarded one another as hostile. But the existence of multiple independent agencies also has value. The FBI, Defense Department, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency can complement each other, and one may come up with innovative assessments that others have missed. It's balance that is missing.
For example, had analysts known that the Defense Intelligence Agency identified an Iraqi defector close to exile leader Ahmad Chalabi as a fraud in May 2002, they might have challenged sweeping claims about Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs more sharply. Cooperation has improved but has a long way to go. As the New York Times reported Thursday, the CIA itself has yet to ensure that its analysts receive timely information from its covert sources inside and outside the agency.
Politicization of intelligence also impedes the agencies, and their trust in one another. Before the war, the White House leaned on the CIA to produce more dire assessments of the Iraqi threat. In the present, the State Department admitted Thursday that its April document "Patterns of Terrorism" wrongly reported that terrorism declined worldwide last year. In fact, attacks rose substantially. Maybe the incorrect numbers were an innocent error, but they fuel the perception that the administration will twist the facts for political purposes.
The ills assailing the intelligence agencies from within and without can be fixed. But though proclamations about overhauling intelligence are appealing in an election year, only White House realism and patient on-the-ground reform will make it possible for CIA chief George J. Tenet's successor to compile a better record.