Is the Intelligence Community Unmanageable?

Is the Intelligence Community Unmanageable?

By Jed Babbin - July 30, 2010

Beginning with the Washington Post's "Top Secret America" series last week, the media are creating a narrative aimed at cutting down to size what the Post called the American intelligence community: a system so big and unwieldy that its effectiveness is impossible to determine. Our intelligence community, according to the Post series, has become ungovernable in the way the media used to characterize New York City.

The Post's Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote that, "The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work...After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine."

But the Post's narrative - quickly joined by the New York Times - is a dangerous diversion because its selective truths divert the public's and congress's attention from one of the most urgent problems facing our nation. They are consumed by their findings about the processes by which the intelligence agencies run rather than their product. The effectiveness of the intelligence community is all too easy to measure, and that effectiveness is far less than what this nation can and must achieve to protect us from the serious adversaries we face.

The November 2009 Fort Hood massacre occurred despite the intelligence community's knowledge of the extended e-mail correspondence between the alleged shooter - Maj. Nidal Hasan - and American-born terrorist imam Anwar al-Awlaki. The unsuccessful Christmas day underwear bomber - Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - was not interdicted despite warnings passed through State Department channels. And the confessed Times Square car bomber Faisal Shazad failed not because he was caught but because he was incompetent. Shazad, as we now know, had met with Hakimullah Mehsud, chief of the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and had videotaped a suicide message.

It was the terrorists' bad luck -- not effective intelligence -- that foiled Abdulmutallab and Shazad.

On the April 11 edition of "Meet the Press," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that although Iran isn't now "nuclear capable," if it becomes so, we won't be able to tell whether it is converting nuclear capability into nuclear arms.

A 2006 report by the Republican staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that "...the United States lacks critical information needed for analysts to make many of their judgments with confidence about Iran and there are many information gaps." From Secretary Gates's statement it's apparent that nothing has changed: we still don't know enough about Iran's nuclear program to decide how we should deal with it. How, almost nine years after 9-11, can this be so?

In an hour-long session with a senior member of the intelligence community last week, I learned why our intelligence community isn't too big or unwieldy: it's unmanaged and too constrained by White House politics to do its job. We have learned little, and done little to improve intelligence, since 1999.

On March 18, 1999 the Chairman of the congressionally-appointed Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States - Donald Rumsfeld - sent the Commission's "Intelligence Side Letter" to Congress. In it, the commissioners reported on the intelligence community's failures. One of the principal reasons for them was a "failure of senior users of intelligence to interact knowledgeably with the producers of intelligence." That lack of knowledgeable interaction - challenging analysts, questioning their assumptions - failed to drive the intelligence agencies to improve their intelligence gathering and analysis to provide more accurate and informative information on which policymakers can base their decisions.

My source said that there is far too much political influence on the intelligence community, too many problems with the Obama administration's interference in intelligence gathering and analysis.

He said, the CIA is still in a "CYA" posture because the White House and the Justice Department have created an atmosphere of distrust that hampers operations. Soon after Holder was confirmed, he and the White House moved supervision of terrorist interrogations out of the CIA and into the White House itself. Holder also initiated a criminal investigation into CIA terrorist interrogations, which he had promised the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence committee, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo), he wouldn't do. That investigation - now almost a year old - continues.

When he is confirmed, Gen. James Clapper will be the fourth Director of National Intelligence in the five years the position has existed. In his confirmation hearing last week, Clapper said he would "push the envelope" and promised he wouldn't be a "hood ornament." About which Sen. Bond said, "While General Clapper assured the Committee he won't be a hood ornament, I am more concerned about him being the bug on the DOJ's windshield."

Clapper's job is an impossible one while the Justice Department and the White House control the operation of our intelligence community. There may well be, as the Washington Post series says, too many people in too many places performing intelligence gathering and analysis. But there is nothing to be gained by cutting the massive government effort - or reducing the number of private contractors involved - unless the entire focus is changed.

Intelligence gathering is pointless unless it is guided by the primary national goal: to obtain accurate and timely information on our adversaries' capabilities and intentions. Right now, the intelligence community is focused on the process, not the product. Unless that is reversed, Clapper will not succeed, nor will we be as safe as we could be if our intelligence community were led effectively and apolitically to accomplish what it must.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

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