Saturday, March 05, 2005

Reforming the CIA

I watched with a degree of amusement as the 9/11 Commission slogged its way through the problems of the U.S. intelligence community. It was no surprise when they arrived at the conclusion that what was needed was reorganization. It was also no surprise that they recommended, and then aggressively marketed, reorganization aimed mostly at the top of the intelligence structure among the political appointees who manage it.

While there certainly were top-level organizational problems in the pre-9/11 intelligence community, a new Director of National Intelligence is unlikely to make much difference. In fact, the process of reorganizing at the top of the structure has consumed so much political energy and management time and created so much confusion that it may prove to be counterproductive. However, the internal problems of the CIA are far more serious and much more deserving of attention, even though they reflect only a part of the overall intelligence community.

Gabriel Schoenfeld wrote a thoughtful article in this month's issue of Commentary magazine that looks into the internal problems of the CIA. The article is lengthy and detailed, and it includes information from and critiques of two recent insider books. As Schoenfeld illustrates, the internal problems of the CIA didn't begin in the last few years. His conclusions:

Across five decades, the CIA performed its intelligence mission with varying degrees of proficiency and success. It had its major operational debacles, as in the Bay of Pigs, and its no less significant analytical failures, as in its persistent misestimates of the size and composition of the Soviet economy. It also accomplished awe-inspiring deeds, including the development of the U-2 spy aircraft and the recruitment of a number of highly placed Communist-bloc spies. Yet increasingly, as the cold war wore on, and in its aftermath, the agency went downhill.

The Clinton administration greatly accelerated this process, not only by sharply cutting the CIA’s budget but also by reining in almost all risk-taking operations and browbeating the agency into becoming a showcase for the Clintonian brand of affirmative action. And showcase is the right word: if the CIA typically shrouds itself in secrecy, when it comes to racial and gender preferences, few government agencies have made their internal workings quite so visible. The drive to hire more “Asian-Pacific” and Hispanic officers at the very moment the CIA was facing a critical shortage of Arabic speakers, and at the very moment when Islamic terrorism was emerging as the most significant threat to our national security, speaks volumes about how and why the agency failed in its mission of safeguarding the United States.

Just as there is no single cause of the CIA’s manifold shortcomings, however, so there is no single solution that can put things right. The United States is today once again at war, and contrary to the CIA’s leading expert on Osama bin Laden, we are facing not a “gentle” adversary but one that has already demonstrated its capacity to murder large numbers of us. In this war, intelligence is the most important front—which means that fixing the CIA or, if it cannot be fixed, replacing it with something different and better, remains the government’s most pressing task. Unfortunately, grafting a new layer of bureaucracy on top of what exists, as Congress has just done, does not even begin to grapple with the real weaknesses of the present system.

These underlying problems aren't going to be dealt with as long as politicians insist on treating critical institutions like intelligence agencies on the same basis as all other parts of the federal government. Restrictions based on moral squeamishness probably won't hamper the operations of the Department of Education, but they hogtie intelligence agencies which sometimes must deal with unsavory people and break the laws of other nations. Race and gender quotas imposed on the Department of Education probably don't do much damage, but when forced on intelligence agencies they limit the recruitment of uniquely skilled and motivated people who may not be part of a favored group.

Intelligence agencies, along with the military, are responsible for protecting our nation and our people, and in the process they may have to do things that are objectionable and downright distasteful, even to their own members. When they are saddled with irrational restrictions and political correctness by do-gooders and partisan ideologues, they are weakened. Reorganization at the top of the intelligence community isn't going to make much difference unless these other problems are also addressed.


Blogger DeepFry said...

I couldn't agree more. I think a complete overhaul of the way intelligence is handled in this country is way overdue. As far as "The War on Terror" goes, conventional warfare isn't the answer. In a globalized world with many disparate and independent terror cells with nothing to lose, there's not a lot you can look at and say "That's the target, go bomb that" Unless you can target specific people, a military campaign won't do a whole lot except turn the occupied into a breeding ground with plenty of discontent people ripe for recruitment. Without the intelligence to know where, and more importantly who, to go after, indiscriminate bombings and patrols will have as much likelihood of success at stopping terror as bombing Brooklyn would have on combating organized crime.

I can't see anything less than a major shakeout at the CIA, coupled with some major funding increases and some serious presidential support helping us win this 'war'. The fact is that we probable don't have enough qualifies people collecting data, analyzing it, and figuring out new ways to use it in the intelligence community. I'd even venture a guess that there are corporations way better equipped to handle vast amounts of data and glean valuable insight from it. Do you even see the CIA these days trying to recruit the best and brightest? All the top people today are becoming superstar analysts and whiz kid developers. It's a shame that the CIA isn't going after more bright young people. There's more than one way to serve your country, and frankly I can't think of a better perk the CIA could offer someone than a chance to protect their country.

3:37 PM, March 05, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...

Well said, Tom and well said deepfry.

The other thing I don't understand is why after 9/11 the intelligence agencies insisted on hiring Muslim Arabic translators but then said no to Jewish or Israeli Arabic translators because they didn't want to "offend" the Muslim ones they had. To me, that was insanity.

So what do you think of Goss? I know many have left the agency since he took over -- and I'm guessing it's because he knows where the bodies are buried so better they get out now on their own steam then allow him to kick their butts out.

4:52 PM, March 05, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Thanks for the comment, DeepFry. I think you've pretty much nailed it.

Esther, I can't think of a more refined way to say this. Affirmative action programs don't have quotas for certain categories of people, including Jews or, more broadly, anyone connected to Israel. It's only those in selected groups who are protected, often to the detriment of an organization. It's hard to understand, but Muslims are in one of those groups, while in reality they should be treated with a certain amount of well-earned caution.

I'm not sure about Goss yet. There's been some housecleaning at upper echelons, true, but part of that has to be a natural result of a change in leadership. Tenet was head of the CIA for about eight years, in two administrations, and there had to be some culture-shock when he was replaced. Otherwise, I think we just have to wait and see. It's early days yet.

7:05 PM, March 05, 2005  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

Very, very interesting. I am only basing this upon the immediate measures Bush took when it became clear that we had not connected the dots leading up to 9/11 plus a few other news stories, but I would have decentralized rather than centralizing.

I would prefer to have seen groups of analysts working as units of the armed forces. I think the problem is too many layers of bureaucracy not too few. Competition produces different theories and ideologies and rewards those that succeed, and competition appears to be what's lacking.

You can construct bureaucratic systems that stifle innovation and initiative; when you do very good people fail because they are not in the position to make themselves heard. I suspect that's what has happened in the intelligence community.

8:16 PM, March 05, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...

Thanks Tom; refined or not, I understand. I'll wait and see too.

MoM, I'm not sure I agree with the competition factor. While in theory, it should work, I'm afraid in the intelligence field, it tends to foul things up as different agencies get territorial and undermine the other -- and that's not good. But I don't have any answers.

1:13 PM, March 06, 2005  

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