Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Future of the Intelligence Community

We have focused, in recent weeks, on several intelligence issues. The US intelligence community uses contractors in record numbers and may be forced to make drastic cuts soon. The community has many challenges, such as Iran and China, but no comprehensive assessment has been done as to why the community has failed with regards to 9/11 and Iraq, other than the 9/11 Commission and, to a much lesser extent, the Iraq Study Group.

Given the track record, should the intelligence community be shrunk down in size and eliminated from policy discussions? Some believe that, no matter how big the intelligence community is, it won't prevent another 9/11 attack.

Mark Lowenthal wrote last weekend that the intelligence community needs to get out of the policy game altogether and stop issuing National Intelligence Estimates:

The pressure to avoid another 9/11 or Iraq is so intense that the intelligence community is expending great effort to little gain. The state of the NIEs is a perfect example. The collectors of intelligence now have to swear by their sources, all of which will be thoroughly scrubbed. The push for consensus among the intelligence community's often squabbling agencies will end. But none of this will assure that the reliability of the estimates themselves will increase. More important, none of this will increase the likelihood that policymakers, in the executive branch or Congress, will read these often ponderous, densely written tomes.

The blunt truth? The intelligence community would be far better off scrapping NIEs altogether and going to a streamlined, better written product similar to the sharper assessments produced in Britain and Australia. And if we are going to be serious about improving intelligence analysis, we have to stop publishing the end products -- even in redacted forms that can show up in the pages of this newspaper. More than anything else, this certainty that internal assessments will wind up on public display stifles the vibrant, edgy, out-of-the-box analysis that everyone says they want -- until it disagrees with their political point of view, of course.

Those "sharper" assessments written in Britain and Australia didn't serve those countries any better when it came to warning them of attacks in London and Bali. We can learn a lot from our allies about intelligence gathering, but the fact remains that their governments are structured differently. We are supposed to have oversight and compliance as our operating principle, and if we get back to that, we'll see marked improvement in the way the government functions. We've had over 7 years of virtually no oversight and compliance, and look where the signing statements and the bald-faced lying to Congress has gotten us.

The appropriate reaction to Lowenthal's ideas comes in the form of Eric Rosenbach's editorial in rebuttal, which was published today in the Washington Post:

A better way to separate intelligence from politics would be to rebuild trust with Congress. Senators who learn about controversial intelligence programs from the front page of The Washington Post, as in the case of CIA interrogations and secret prisons, won't be willing to defend the intelligence community and may very likely lambast it. Key intelligence leaders should make more frequent trips to the Hill to keep the oversight committees "fully informed," per the requirements of the National Security Act of 1947. And if there's a time for the intelligence community to stand up, it's when the White House asks that Congress be kept in the dark. To their credit, both CIA Director Hayden and DNI McConnell have opened up on several key issues over the past two years and as a result, the Senate Intelligence Committee has provided them increased support. Unfortunately, the CIA is now allowing the White House to withhold access to intelligence about the Israeli bombing of an alleged Syrian nuclear facility. Don't be surprised if this leads to another round of intelligence bashing on Capitol Hill.

Lowenthal's assertion that intelligence hasn't improved in recent years largely because there wasn't much room to improve -- is also puzzling. The intelligence community today is arguably more proactive and capable than at any time since the Cold War. The newest generation of spies no longer waits for defectors to walk into their arms. They actively pursue new sources of information on hard targets, like Iran and al Qaeda. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, for example, impressively contained information from almost 1,500 sources. Our intelligence operators now also eliminate top terrorist leaders on a regular basis. This powerful and effective capability stands in stark contrast to the days when Richard Clarke, then-White House counterterrorism czar, begged in vain for the CIA to do anything that would take terrorists off the streets.

Lowenthal's conclusion, that reports like the National Intelligence Estimates have little policy impact and therefore should be scrapped, underestimates the influential role such assessments play in debates on the Hill. He's wrong to say that the "slam dunk" NIE warning that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction didn't influence Congress in the run-up to war. Even senators who didn't read the entire document knew and considered its bottom line. And look at the latest NIE on the Iranian nuclear program. Nearly all foreign policy analysts believe that it dramatically lowered the probability of U.S. military action. The intelligence assessment process places the intelligence community in the middle of heated policy debates, which is exactly where the nation needs an objective and credible voice.

Given that the Democrats are likely to hold on to the Senate this fall, that means less of the administration-enabling shenanigans of Pat Roberts and hopefully a lot less of the telecom immunity-wishywashyedness of Jay Rockefeller. The Senate needs new leadership and new committee chairmen, badly. There is no reason for the Senate to go into another session of Congress with Rockefeller and Lieberman where they are.

Lowenthal does attempt to get one thing right, but he misses one crucial point:

Indeed, the notorious October 2002 NIE warning that Iraq possessed WMD had virtually no effect on anyone's decision about whether to go to war. It probably did not influence President Bush or other senior policymakers, who had pretty much made up their minds to invade Iraq months earlier. It had no effect on the Senate: As The Washington Post reported in 2004, no more than six senators read beyond the five-page executive summary of the NIE, although 77 senators voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Nor did the NIE have much effect on the United Nations: The Security Council declined to support the hawkish U.S. and British position despite the NIE's alarming (and alarmist) assessment of Iraq's arsenal.

Senator Bob Graham provided that missing link for us way back in 2005:

For his part, President Bush claims that Democrats examined the evidence before the war. "They looked at the same intelligence I did, and they voted -- many of them voted -- to support the decision I made," said the president.

That is a claim made by many administration officials in the past two weeks -- that everyone saw the same intelligence. But former Sen. Bob Graham, who is also a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, disagrees. Graham notes that members of Congress do not have access to the President's Daily Brief, a highly classified document containing specific and contextual intelligence. And he says he was stunned to find that in the run-up to the war, the president did not order a National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq, despite the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee demanded that one be drawn up.

When the document was finally prepared, "what we got was a document that was slanted towards 'yes, there were weapons of mass destruction at 550 sites in Iraq,'" says Graham, who claims that Congress did not have access to anywhere near the amount of raw data that the president did. The quality of that intelligence is now a major part of the fight between the White House and Democrats on the Hill. The administration clearly perceives this fight as a threat to its credibility, a threat that it must answer in no uncertain terms.

This is clearly a case of selective memory and wishful thinking. As in, people have not been given a comprehensive accounting for why we were lied into war, and wishing it would all just go away isn't in the best interests of our country.

Rosenbach writes:

Here's some advice for the next Director of National Intelligence: Don't whine to policymakers about the difficulty of your job. Don't make excuses for your failures. And definitely don't claim that the intelligence community can't do any better.

Here's to former Senator Bob Graham being the NEXT Director of National Intelligence.

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