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Fixing Our Covert Branches

By David Ignatius

VERGENNES, Vermont -- If the U.S. intelligence community were a business, it would be obvious that there's something wrong: It's in the middle of a botched reorganization that makes the AOL-Time Warner merger look good; its most famous brand name, "CIA," has been badly tarnished; and it has lost the confidence of its three shareholders -- the executive branch, the Congress and the American public. This bear market in intelligence is not helpful for a nation that is fighting two major wars.

So what should the next president do to fix the U.S. intelligence community? A group of past and present members of the spy world, joined by some journalists and academics, gathered here last week to discuss this covert conundrum. The conference, sponsored by the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, didn't come up with definitive answers. But it convinced me that this issue should be at the top of the next president's list of national-security challenges.

The spy world's troubles are like one of those murder mysteries where it turns out everyone had a hand in the crime. During the Bush years, the right grew to mistrust the CIA almost as much as did its traditional enemies on the left. Some of the CIA's wounds were self-inflicted -- especially its disastrous misjudgment about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission made matters worse by pushing an unwise 2004 reorganization plan that created a Director of National Intelligence in place of the Director of Central Intelligence, but with many of the old problems.

The reorganization added more bodies to a community already suffering from bloat. It did nothing to fix the real weakness of the old system, which was that the DCI had little control over the sprawling Pentagon intelligence archipelago.

This messy, undigested reorganization will become Barack Obama's and John McCain's problem the day after they are nominated. That's when the presidential candidates will begin receiving intelligence briefings. The nominees will see the power of intelligence reporting, but should also understand how the CIA has declined as an effective (and secret) arm of the commander in chief.

Every member attending the conference could compile a different "fix it" list, but here are some proposals I culled from the discussion:

-- The reorganization should be rationalized. One person should run the entire community, and that person should probably also have oversight of the CIA's clandestine service. Whether that person is called the DNI or the DCI is irrelevant. A model for what the spy chief should do is the 5 p.m. meeting that George Tenet convened every evening when he was DCI; he gathered representatives from all the intelligence agencies and grilled them for 90 minutes about what they were doing to stop the nation's enemies. The next morning he could brief the president, knowing all the facts.

-- The CIA should stop trying to be all things to all policymakers, and instead concentrate on the hard targets that matter most. As one senior ex-spook commented, this would require a new compact with Congress and the executive branch, so that policymakers stop using the gold watch of the intelligence community to do the equivalent of pounding nails. Art Brown, a longtime CIA case officer in Asia, commented that when he finally came in from the cold, he realized that "99 percent of what we were producing overseas, nobody was reading." That's got to stop.

Less is sometimes more, and I'd favor a smaller, elite cadre of analysts under the DNI or DCI, or whatever the spy chief is called.

-- Washington should learn from what's working in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Out in the field, you can see one intelligence community. The kids operate together -- analysts and collectors, military and civilian," said one former top DNI official. David Kilcullen, an Australian who is a counterinsurgency adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, explained how soldiers and spies who understand tribal cultures are putting al-Qaeda on the run.

But none of these reforms will work unless Congress and the White House stop treating the intelligence community like a political football. "Congressional oversight has become ambulance chasing," lamented one former top-level CIA official.

This is the time to rebuild. As John McLaughlin, a former acting CIA director, observed, this should be a moment of renaissance, like the one in which the CIA was created in the late 1940s: "This is a dangerous world we don't fully understand, and we need the tools of intelligence. A page is about to turn."

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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