Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A good dissent

Stick with me here, because this is a long one, but there is a payoff.

After the 9-11 Commission issued its report earlier this year, both presidential candidates immediately took up the standard and encouraged Congress to pass intelligence reform along the lines of the report recommendations. That should have been just an election-year ploy because the simple fact is that the 9-11 Commission recommendations reveal the Commission's lack of understanding of the intelligence problems that faced this country (remember, the Commission consisted of members with virtually no intelligence experience). Instead, the Commission recommendations were pure Washington-insider solutions to problems that arose from Washington-insider outlooks: centralizing intelligence gathering, unifying all intel under a National Intelligence Director, unlimited tenure on oversight committees (a nice way to ensure problems get entrenched), etc. As Michael Ledeen noted at the time:

The commission has actually come up with an oversight scheme that would almost certainly make things even worse than they have been. They want new oversight committees, with "bipartisan staff" (presumably selected by the Archangel Michael, because nobody in Washington is capable of such an act), bigger budgets, and unlimited tenure. This is a guarantee of corruption. Elected officials with open-ended terms will invariably end up in the pockets of the intelligence community. The best hope for honest congressional criticism is short tenure and revolving staff.

Worse still, the report calls for even more money for intelligence, and an entirely new layer of bureaucracy, the effect of which would be far greater centralization of the whole process.

I think this gets the problem backwards. We need a smaller intelligence community, not a bigger one, because bigger means more homogenized. The Senate Intelligence Committee report complained about "group think," which is the inevitable outcome of a big community that has to agree on final language for finished intelligence. It would be far better, in my opinion, to let real specialists tell the policymakers what they think, and sign their names to their conclusions. That way, if an analyst successfully solved a problem, he could be rewarded. As things stand now — and the matter is even worse if the commission's recommendations are adopted — no one can be rewarded for original thinking, and bad analysis gets blamed on the whole organization.

Sen. Hagel (a liberal favorite because he occasionally opposes the President) noted in early August that others were studying how to fix the US intelligence system, and that progress had been made; therefore implementing the Commission recommendations was neither necessary nor desireable. And the always-notable Richard Posner decried the Commission's conclusions that centralization and unanimity were desireable:

[The Commission] believes in centralizing intelligence, and people who prefer centralized, pyramidal governance structures to diversity and competition deprecate dissent. But insistence on unanimity, like central planning, deprives decision makers of a full range of alternatives.

The President wants a national intelligence reform but has failed to relegate his support for the 9-11 Commission recommendations to the ash-heap of the presidential campaign; he wants the bill incorporating those reforms, which the Senate passed, to get through the house. Unfortunately he cares more about the achievement of getting the legislation signed than about the contents thereof (think No Child Left Behind II).

Yesterday, the House of Representatives, led by Duncan Hunter and James Sensenbrenner, scuttled the bill, at least in its current form. Why? Too much control for the "National Intelligence Director" to command budgets and allocate battlefield resources away from the military. I also dislike the provisions that would make the Intel budget public -- there are certain things the people have a right to know, but state secrets and the minutiae of the intel budget are not among them. Here is a cut from Brendan Miniter's column (link in title) saluting Hunter (and Sensenbrenner, although the latter is not named in the piece):

. . . the 9/11 Commission suggested a complete overhaul of the intelligence community, including creating a national intelligence director to lord over the CIA and other agencies as well as control the budgets for the intelligence agencies inside the Defense Department, create a National Counter Terrorism Center and make public the intelligence budget.

The Senate picked up these recommendations--including provisions to allow the new national intelligence director to pull money and personnel away from the Pentagon's intelligence agencies. Under the Senate's plan, the National Counter Terrorism Center would also have "operational control"--meaning the new intelligence czar could order soldiers and CIA operatives, for example, to carry out missions overseas without any input from the director of the CIA or the secretary of defense.

The problems here are obvious. The intelligence czar, who was expected to occupy office space within the CIA, would likely end up draining intelligence resources away from the military to meet the needs of the CIA, FBI and other civilian spy agencies. That could leave soldiers in the field without the critical, real-time intelligence they need to fight on the modern battlefield--what House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter calls the soldiers' "lifeline." To use a current example, if this was already in place, soldiers fighting in Fallujah might not have had the satellite linkups they needed to study the changing battlefield. Money and technology aside, the military also feared the intelligence director would pull essential personnel away from military duties--something explicitly within his power under the Senate's plan.

Note to Congress: Try again if you must, but get it right.

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