The failure to approve an intelligence reform bill in the House of Representatives over the weekend is not necessarily a tragedy. The 9/11 commission, whose recommendations were the basis of a bill passed by the Senate, does not have a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to reforming the “intelligence community,” as the 15 sprawling agencies that do intelligence work are politely if not always accurately called.
Few people question that given the attacks of 9/11 and the shortcomings demonstrated by (among other things) the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the United States has not been well served by the agencies designed to be the nation’s eyes and ears in potentially dangerous places. But the fact that the House would not simply go along with the Senate version reflects a more serious lack of consensus about just how to fix these agencies than is generally acknowledged.
The most important reform recommended by the 9/11 Commission is to create a new position of national intelligence director to supervise the activities of all 15 intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and others — with a certain amount of control over the agencies’ budgets and priorities.
The Defense Department now controls agencies that receive about 80 percent of current intelligence-related funding. It is reluctant to give up control, and California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, may have been reflecting Pentagon preferences when he opposed the Senate version of the bill.
Some Defense concerns are understandable, especially when troops are engaged in active hostilities overseas. You can understand the desire to maintain military control over the intelligence that could mean life or death on the ground. But it is difficult to tell whether the creation of a new director of intelligence would really create such problems or whether the Pentagon is simply acting like most bureaucracies — eager to maintain what it has and to expand its scope.
Whether the concern of other House Republicans — that the Senate version does not include provisions that would make it easier to deport illegal immigrants and beef up the border patrol — is serious enough to prevent reform just now or is a stalking horse for other concerns is hard to tell.
Creating a director of intelligence who is not also charged with managing an agency seems like a sound idea. As Greg Treverton, author of the recent book, “Reshaping Intelligence” and a senior analyst at RAND Corp., said, the director of central intelligence under current statutes has three full-time jobs: He runs the CIA, supervises and coordinates intelligence from other agencies and serves as the president’s chief adviser on intelligence matters. Most DCIs focus on the first and the third.
As retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency and author of “Fixing Intelligence for a Secure America” said last week, when the DCI also heads an agency, “he becomes more like one of the kids on the playground, not like the teacher.”
Treverton and Odom both believe it would be helpful to reshape intelligence so it is focused on problems and potential threats rather than around agencies formed during the Cold War. Neither the House nor the Senate bills addresses this issue, although a new director of intelligence would presumably have some authority to move in this direction.
The issue of intelligence reform is complex enough that there seems little harm in taking more time to get it right. The fact of 9/11 has prodded intelligence people and agencies to communicate better with or without new legislation. It wouldn’t hurt to broaden the discussion before putting in place a new structure that probably won’t change again for a generation or more.