Wednesday, May 17, 2006


An interesting and provocative take on the NSA-CIA-Hayden story by Nadezhda at American Footprints:

" The CIA and NSA brouhahas have more in common than simply Gen Hayden's nomination. "Intel reform" seems to be turning into another debacle a la the Dep't of Homeland Security. And for many of the same reasons -- not just politicization by the Bush Admin's hackocracy. These problems include:

* an over-emphasis on a narrow definition of "threat" as a specific class of terrorism anignoring other threats or the context in which the threats emerge

* a penchant for hierarchical bureaucratic (and political) control -- trying to address the need for information-sharing and rapid response by shifting organizational boxes or adding top levels of "coordination" rather than breaking down silos

*a preference for big-ticket, high-tech solutions over people -- we've gone from a "military-industrial complex" to a "military-security-intel-industrial complex" in just five years, with the connivance of Congressional porkers in appropriations committees, of course.

It's not easy to assemble a coherent picture of what's really happening. Opacity comes with the territory as soon as the word "intelligence" is uttered, compounded by the Bush Admin's well-known obsession with secrecy. Also as Nell suggests, the sowing of confusion about the reform battles -- deliberate or otherwise -- interferes with the ability of journalists and Democrats to present a simple, damning narrative.

So I don't pretend to have a coherent view of what's wrong and how it ought to be fixed. Rather, I've collected below a variety of critiques that, together, help us see the puzzle a bit better. I've divided them into four broad themes:

* wrong approach to "dot connection" -- Negroponte is appropriating "Central" in the CIA's mission

* wrong agenda -- we don't do "strategic intelligence" and couldn't even if we wanted to

* wrong understanding of "intelligence" objectives and processes -- especially ignoring the importance of open source intelligence.

* the growing reliance on technical intelligence collection is the Star Wars of the GWOT -- Bill Arkin today put in print a thought I've had as I've watched the NSA saga unfold. "

Excluding the brief bits of irrelevant partisan blather, many of the methodological and organizational criticisms that Nadezhda offers in her post are spot on, though not all of them ( and even those that are off are, nonetheless, interesting). I fully endorse Nadezhda's call for a first rate OSINT effort which has already started expanding on the old FBIS. A few comments:

The 9/11 Commission Report was the political driver of Intel reform and the commissioners zeroed in on creating the DNI post as a way of resolving the perennial "wearer of two hats" conflict inherent in the position of DCI ever since the creation of the CIA. This was a mistake and the effort wasted here would have better been put toward more substantive reforms. There have been only a handful of " great" - i.e. historically important and influential - DCI's and none who mastered both running the CIA and uniting the fractured and compartmentalized intelligence community.

DCI's like Dulles, Turner or Casey were powerful primarily because they had the unstinting backing and active interest of a President, not because of the title they held. Without the consistent and high profile support of the White House, John Negroponte's position as DNI would be a pointless sinecure ( Negroponte, well aware of the political reality, is rapidly building a bureaucratic base in the IC to sustain the function of his office past January, 2008).

In terms of " strategic intelligence", Nadezhda is corect that we do this poorly but is wrong when she claims we cannot do it if we wished or that OSINT can substitute. The " strategic intel" problem is resolved by separating the need to feed the insatiable appetite for " current" information from the task list of those IC personnel who engage in espionage in order to collect secret information of strategic importance by clandestine means. Current intelligence, which requires monitoring a flow of events is best done by analysts reviewing the data provided by OSINT, SIGINT and IMINT agencies. Strategic intelligence, which requires patience and a depth of investment in HUMINT should be done by an agency devoted exclusively to clandestinity and nothing else (1).

The NIE process can then be retooled to better utilize clandestine HUMINT intelligence data to make predictive " warning" scenarios of a strategic within a global intel picture. That means disrupting the insularity of the IC by bringing in more outside experts as is often done in the NSC and engaging in deliberate cognitive exercises to break down the preexisting" frames " brought to the table by the analysts so the data can be viewed from new as well as orthodox perspectives. Analysts, in other words, do not just need more " content field depth"; they need to acquire a much greater range of analytical-methodological tools in order to widen their field of vision. It is counterintuitive but the relative lack of thirty year veteran, narrow field, experts among the IC analysts today will make reforming strategic intelligence easier rather than harder.

All in all, a impressive post by Nadezhda.

1. See Johnson, William R. "Clandestinity and Current Intelligence", Studies in Intelligence, vol.20, No. 3 (Fall 1976) pp 15-69. Johnson bemoaned the corrupting effect of " journalistic" practices on the IC.

Thanks for taking the time to plow through my attempt to make some sense out of the various critiques of intel reform in the press. It wasn't really an attempt to say "what should be done" -- rather trying to puzzle out what are the substantive critiques under the "turf war" rubrique that we should be taking seriously. Even if we ultimately reject them.

As I noted over at an update at american footprints, I'll have to chew on your point about the virtues of linking strategic intel with clandestinity.

As for what will be done by the Bush Admin, there I'm trying to articulate behavior patterns I see as common across much of the Admin's policies in the security domain (not just intel, but homeland security, Iraq, the QDR, etc) -- and which underlie a lot of the problems that folks from both left and right have with those policies. E.g., preferring technology over people, vertical control over horizontal networks, etc.

In my post update, I've links to two new pieces you may find of interest by Spencer Akerman in TNR and Ken Silverstein in Harper's on intel turf wars, reform and the CIA's future.
Hi Nad,

Again, a good post.

I think however that political direction of the IC, where Bush &co. have done right and wrong, is a separate issue from analytical methodology and institutional culture at CIA and in the IC as a whole. Few Presidents, except Eisenhower, ever delved that deeply into the IC to try to steer the institutional culture itself. And Eisenhower's hands-on experience with intel is unlikely to be replicated (even Bush, sr. a former DCI, did not have this familiarity).

The institutional IC culture, expressed as bureaucratic preferences, by the NSA, CIA, Pentagon, etc. is a very enduring phenomenon. Go back and review " The Huston Plan" in _The Puzzle Palace_ ( which was killed by J.Edgar Hoover) and note the similarities with NSA controversies in 2006. Or, the FBI's historic resistance to prioritizing intelligence objectives.

The bureaucracies need an internal intellectual renovation, not just a reorg. or new political masters.
Agreed about recalcitrant bureaucratic behavior patterns based on long-standing institutional cultures. Changing institutional cultures is hard stuff -- sometimes I think it requires blowing up an institution every 20 to 30 years just to get rid of the accretion of dysfunctional behavior patterns.

I'm not expecting a president of either party to roll up his shirt sleeves and dig into reform. My point is simply that the sort of intellectual renovation you and other critics are advocating is less likely when the bureaucratic preferences of the Admin in power run directly counter to the sort of changes that are needed. All the signalling is wrong, which will defeat even the most energetic and enlightened reform leadership.
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