President Bush insists that he is already implementing recommendations from the officious smorgasbord of the presidential commission on intelligence. Let’s hope not.
It’s not that the U.S. intelligence agencies don’t need reform. The severe intelligence failures surrounding 9/11 and the non-existence of Iraqi WMD indicate that significant change is needed. But this panel, like the 9/11 commission before it, has recommended expanding an already swollen intelligence bureaucracy rather than putting it on a much-needed diet.
The adoption of the earlier 9/11 commission’s recommendations by Congress and the administration resulted in the worst of all possible worlds. A new layer of bureaucracy, in the form of a new national intelligence director, was added on top of the already extensive 15-agency intelligence community. In addition, this new office was not given the power to rein in the entrenched agencies of the community. Congress did not give the new director the authority to match his responsibility. In fact, the legislation doesn’t make the powers of the new office clear, and they will probably be the subject of much interagency wrangling. But something is wrong when Congress creates such a sprawling intelligence structure that requires even more bureaucracy to ride herd on it.
And the recent suggestions of the presidential commission on intelligence make the 9/11 commission’s appetite for recommendations look restrained. The presidential commission went on a federal feeding frenzy and recommended stuffing the intelligence community with many new offices and organizations. The commission suggested creating a new National Intelligence University, a directorate in the CIA to supervise the nation’s human spying, a national security directorate in the FBI, a long-term analysis unit that would not have to bother with day-to-day intelligence, a National Counter Proliferation Center to coordinate government efforts to counter WMD, a non-profit research institute to encourage dissenting views, and an open source directorate to snare intelligence information from newspapers, TV, and the internet.
The recommendations of the two panels are typical of such “independent” commissions in the nation’s capital. Usually composed of ex-members of Congress and former high-level bureaucrats, they instinctively prescribe adding bureaucracy as a remedy for any ill. Furthermore, they usually get so wound up in what to recommend that they lose sight of the original problem that they were asked to examine.
Both of these commissions noted that the existing 15 intelligence agencies don’t adequately cooperate or share information, but the panels’ recommendations would make the problem worse, not better. This dilemma is nothing new. Problems of intelligence coordination and information sharing existed long before September 11, 2001; in fact these same problems were present prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.on December 7, 1941. In both cases, there was enough information inside the U.S. government–”if shared and integrated–”that could have warned of an impending attack. Yet U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t adequately collaborate in either case, leading to disaster. The more offices, organizations, agencies, and bureaucracies that are created, the more difficult coordination and effective dissent become.
One justification for having so many agencies is that policymakers get a range of opinion. In the case of Iraqi WMD, however, the numerous agencies all knew who was boss and what he wanted to hear. Any dissent–”and there wasn’t much–”was stifled or ignored. Perhaps the intelligence agencies should be made more independent of presidential authority, much like independent regulatory boards.
And to improve the speed of interagency coordination against an agile terrorist foe, we should put the bloated intelligence bureaucracies on a diet by reducing and streamlining the number of agencies. Unlike typical foreign government adversaries, terrorists don’t need to complete a lot of paperwork before attacking. A nimble enemy demands leaner government agencies to counter it.