Jim Kouri
Washington Post slams U.S. intelligence community
By Jim Kouri
July 21, 2010

In a controversial article, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence gathering has become so massive since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that agencies are plagued with redundancy and that many intelligence reports are routinely ignored.

The Washington Post report cites government documents, as well as current and former intelligence officials. As has become a custom in journalism, many of those officials requested anonymity.

According to the Post, a two-year investigation found that more than 1,270 government organizations and 1,900 private firms involved in counterterrorism and intelligence do the same work. The newspaper report claims that no one knows how much money is being wasted in those efforts.

Closely tied to the question of how best to set intelligence requirements are the larger questions of how to improve analysis by the intelligence community and how to increase its impact.

Many policymakers and lawmakers are critical of the analysis they receive, and both intelligence consumers and producers often share a frustration over its perceived lack of utility and hence lack of impact. This includes local law enforcement commanders who — more than ever — depend on solid information in order to deploy their resources in post-9/11 America.

The best way to ensure high-quality analysis is to bring high quality analysts into the process. Here it helps to think of the challenge as one of improving both the stock and the flow of personnel. Certain stock (career personnel) need to be encouraged to specialize in a geographical area or function and rewarded for excellence. Not everyone need pursue a career with a management component. This is not meant to diminish the value of management skills. To the contrary, the CIA in particular needs to place much more emphasis on formal management and leadership training as well as demonstrated competence as a prerequisite for promotion for those headed for senior levels.

But better analysis will also require reducing the isolation of the intelligence community. A greater flow of talented people into the agency from academia and business is essential. Greater provision ought to be made for lateral and mid-career entry as well as for short-term entry (measured in weeks, months, or years) or even for just a single, short-duration project. In this way the intelligence community could attract and exploit some of the best minds from academia and other sections of society that would otherwise not be available.

Working to improve the quality of analysts, however, is not enough; it is also necessary to change the relationship between intelligence producers and consumers. Intelligence professionals must understand the needs of policymakers and vice versa. One way to do so is through regular rotation of career intelligence officers into positions in the policymaking departments (State, Defense, Treasury, etc.) and the NSC. Temporary assignment to the relevant congressional staffs should also be an option. Sabbaticals as in academia or business would be similarly useful; indeed, such rotations should be required for promotion to senior levels. The same logic argues for assigning careerists normally in the policymaking realm to periodic tours inside the intelligence community.

The danger of politicization — the potential for the intelligence community to distort information or judgment in order to please political authorities — is real. Moreover, the danger can never be eliminated if intelligence analysts are involved, as they must be, in the policy process. The challenge is to develop reasonable safeguards while permitting intelligence producers and policymaking consumers to interact.

The need to protect intelligence from political pressure and parochialism is a powerful argument for maintaining a strong, centralized capability and not leaving decisions affecting important intelligence-related questions solely to the policymaking departments. (Centralization raises the risk of politicization stemming from the DCI. Only the president, senior officials involved in national security, and Congress can help guard against politicization-though they too can try to politicize intelligence.)

Unlike business, in the intelligence business, the customer is not always right.

The intelligence community can protect itself from political pressure through competitive analysis of controversial questions. Guarding against politicization is also a useful function for Congress and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. (One option to consider in this regard would be to reconstitute to make it selected by and responsible to Congress as well as the president, as was the Aspin-Brown Commission.) Perhaps most important, the leadership of the intelligence community should reinforce the ethic that speaking the truth to those in power is required-and defend anyone who comes under criticism for doing so.

Irrelevance is a related and arguably bigger problem for analysts than politicization. Intelligence analysis rarely impresses itself upon policymakers, who are inevitably busy and inundated with more demands on their time and attention than they can possibly meet. Intelligence officials must draw attention to their product and market their ideas. This is especially true in the case of any early warning or intelligence-related development that has potentially significant consequences for important interests. A phone call, a personalized memorandum, a meeting-any and all are required if the situation is sufficiently serious. Involving relevant policymakers and other consumers in the regular personnel evaluations of the analysts who serve them would underline the importance of such an effort and provide an incentive to individual analysts.

Another serious problem to be avoided is mindset or "groupthink." Any organization, and the CIA or any intelligence agency is no exception, can fall into the trap of not questioning basic assumptions that affect much subsequent analysis. It is essential t hat competitive or redundant analysis be encouraged. Currently and historically, less than a tenth of what the United States spends on intelligence is devoted to analysis; it is the least expensive dimension of intelligence. Not all duplication is wasteful. This country could surely afford to spend more in those areas of analysis where being wrong can have major adverse consequences.

One other aspect of analysis merits mention, namely, the balance between current intelligence and long-term estimates. For years the culture of the intelligence community, in particular that of the CIA, has favored the latter. But it is precisely in long-term analysis of familiar subjects and broad trends where secret information tends to be less critical and government analysts are for the most part no better and often not as good as their counterparts in academia and the private sector.

Also, many estimates are likely to be less relevant to busy policymakers, who must focus on the immediate. All this suggests that the emphasis placed on such estimates should be reduced. To the extent long-term estimates are produced, they ought to be concise, written by individuals, and sources justifying conclusions ought to be shown as they would in any academic work. If the project is a group effort, differences among participants ought to be sharpened and prominently acknowledged. While it is valuable to point out areas of consensus, it is more important that areas of dispute be highlighted than that all agencies be pressured to reach a conclusion that represents little more than a lowest common denominator

The most important function of the clandestine services-mostly found in the CIA Directorate of Operations — is the collection of human intelligence. Such intelligence can complement other sources and, in certain instances, be the principal or sole source of information.

This tends to be true in closed societies, where decision-making and information is limited to a few, highly valued efforts are meant to be kept secret, and the targeted activity is not easily captured by reconnaissance or eavesdropping. Human intelligence can also help shed light on intentions as well as capabilities. Such knowledge is likely to prove crucial in tracking the activities of terrorists and in determining the status of unconventional weapons programs. Human intelligence is no panacea. Contacts and networks take years to develop, if they can be developed at all-but it holds the often unique potential to provide an integrated look at a subject's thinking and capability.

A second task for the clandestine services is covert action, that is, the carrying out of operations to influence events in another country in which it is deemed important to hide the hand of the US government. Historically, covert action has included such activities as channeling funds to selected individuals, movements or political parties, media placements, broadcasting, and paramilitary support.

Such operations can be designed to bolster the capabilities of friendly governments in dealing with challenges to them and their societies. Covert measures can also have the opposite purpose, to weaken a hostile government. The capability to undertake these and other tasks-be it to frustrate a terrorist action, intercept some technology or equipment that would help a rogue state or group build a nuclear device, or assist some group trying to overthrow a leadership whose actions threaten US interests-constitutes an important national security tool, one that can provide policymakers a valuable alternative or complement to other policies, including diplomacy, sanctions, and military intervention.

Clandestine operations, whether for collection of foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, or covert action, will often require associating with individuals of unsavory reputations who in some instances may have committed crimes. This differs little from the tradition in law enforcement of using criminals to catch criminals and should be acceptable so long as the likely benefits outweigh the certain moral and potential political costs of the association-a calculation that should not be made solely by the person in the field. The only other word of caution (in addition to ensuring legality, sufficient control, and adequate oversight) is that any covert action must appear consistent with established US policy so that, if discovered, the purposes behind the effort would be understood.

Clandestine operations for whatever purpose currently are circumscribed by a number of legal and policy constraints. These deserve review to avoid diminishing the potential contribution of this instrument. At a minimum, the Task Force recommended that a fresh look be taken at limits on the use of nonofficial "covers" for hiding and protecting those involved in clandestine activities. In addition, rules that can prohibit preemptive attacks on terrorists or support for individuals hoping to bring about a regime change in a hostile country need to be assessed periodically.

Maintaining and enhancing clandestine capabilities takes time and resources; creating and nurturing such capabilities ought to be a high priority of the intelligence community given the importance of targets that otherwise cannot be reached. Individuals must not only learn the craft but also develop language skills, deep knowledge of a society, and covers to shield their intelligence-related activity. They will also benefit from having available an adequate official US presence; the closing of US embassies and other missions abroad reduces the capacity to collect intelligence and undertake clandestine operations.

On the other hand, one cannot ignore the Directorate of Operations' record of operating with questionable legality and judgment. Constant vigilance inside the CIA is needed to ensure that the DO is doing quality work consistent with policy priorities, senior officials inside and outside the CIA are kept fully informed, officer's actions are consistent with existing regulations and laws, senior DO personnel are treating their employees responsibly, and analysts outside the directorate have full access to its product.

In return, those in the operations directorate should know that risk-taking will be supported and they will be politically protected so long as what they do is authorized and legal under US law at the time. Such support is crucial; contrary to widespread impressions, one problem with the clandestine services has been a lack of initiative brought about by a fear of retroactive discipline and a lack of high-level support. This must be rectified if the intelligence community is to continue to produce the human intelligence that will surely be needed in the future.

(The above is an abridged version of a lecture given by the author at a conference held by the 14,000-member National Association of Chiefs of Police.)

© Jim Kouri


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Jim Kouri

Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police... (more)


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