An Intelligence Reform Reality Check

It's time to take another look at the intelligence changes made after Sept. 11, 2001, and their impact on our intelligence capabilities and leadership at home and abroad.

It has been three years since the intelligence community was reorganized with passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act in December 2004, and the results are not encouraging. In fact, the leadership issue has become even more muddled.

The big problem with the new, two-headed intelligence structure surfaced again last month when Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence (DNI), and CIA Director Michael Hayden traveled to Islamabad to try to persuade Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to authorize an increased CIA presence and operational activity in the unruly Northwest Frontier, a safe haven for the Taliban and the presumed home of Osama bin Laden. They reportedly returned empty-handed.

It's hard to imagine that this important initiative benefited from having a tandem presentation by two directors of intelligence organizations. A strong intelligence message in a foreign setting is best delivered by an unequivocal, single voice of authority. This leadership dilemma was brought about by the "reform" legislation that grew out of Sept. 11. It needs to be fully reassessed -- and soon.

As we approach a change at the White House, it would seem an opportune time for Congress to authorize an independent, bipartisan audit of the progress of intelligence reform. In the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil, the Sept. 11 commission released its formal report along with a hastily put together list of recommendations for reforming the intelligence community. Unfortunately, it was too quickly seized upon and endorsed by presidential candidate John Kerry and seconded, apparently without serious reflection, by the Bush administration. The proposed reforms were only briefly debated in Congress and were adopted without any serious public discussion of their merits.

Professionals who had spent their careers in the trenches tackling the complexity of the intelligence business were largely sidelined from the decision process. Regrettably, the commission's report was viewed as sacrosanct, and nobody dared challenge its recommendations, despite the fact that many intelligence professionals believed creation of a director of national intelligence would only lead to additional layers of bureaucracy and lack the teeth to bring all the diverse intelligence entities into line.

Nonetheless, Congress easily passed the measure, which afforded the DNI only limited authority over the 16 agencies in the intelligence community. The legislation simply didn't give the DNI the budgetary muscle needed to lead the intelligence community, and it created a troublesome confusion here and abroad regarding precisely who is in charge.

Today, the DNI has become what intelligence professionals feared it would: an unnecessary bureaucratic contraption with an amazingly large staff. It certainly had to be taken as a lack of confidence in the DNI's viability when its first occupant, John Negroponte, stepped down to become second in command at the State Department.

The passage of time has not significantly enhanced the power of the DNI, but it has diminished the role of the CIA, our nation's preeminent human intelligence agency -- much to the detriment of our national security. Despite this situation, McConnell has, to his credit, agreed to take on the monumental task of trying to reform the intelligence process in what must by now be largely a thankless task.

The good news is that since 9/11 the intelligence budget has grown significantly, to approximately $43 billion, and there has been a sizable infusion of operational and analytical positions.

But are we getting full bang for the buck? How much has it really improved our intelligence capabilities, and has it helped to overcome the information-sharing obstacles that were so frequently discussed after Sept. 11? An amount on the order of $43 billion ought to buy a great deal of intelligence firepower and operational influence.

Most important, are we anywhere near where we need to be in penetrating the terrorist organizations that threaten us, as well as the nation-states that represent serious national security challenges: Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and an increasingly unstable Pakistan? Enough time has elapsed since Congress legislated these changes in 2004 to merit an evaluation of the new bureaucracy. Has this bureaucratic superstructure enhanced our intelligence capabilities? Does it deserve a passing grade for its efforts?

Moreover, the intelligence shortcomings that surfaced in the run-up to the Iraq war, as well as the misreading of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities, also speak to the value of conducting a fresh and in-depth evaluation of precisely how well the issues of politicization, collection and analysis are being addressed by the intelligence community. This review can be expected to recommend adjustments that surely are needed -- including dismantling the DNI if necessary and reinvigorating an authentic CIA.

Admittedly, the CIA has suffered greatly in recent years primarily because of policy shortfalls and leadership issues. But no one should underestimate the quality of its staff, its foreign ties and its unique capabilities, which are the cornerstone of the intelligence community. These strengths remain the base for building a robust intelligence agency.

Because Congress was instrumental in setting up the DNI, there may be an inclination there to avoid the issue and the embarrassment that its poor performance could cause to those who supported its creation and who still mistakenly point to it as the reason there has not been another terrorist attack in the United States. But our ability to tackle the national security challenges of this decade is central to our survival and should trump any hesitation to confront this issue head-on, even if it means scrapping the ill-conceived notion of the DNI and its super-bureaucracy.

If Congress is reluctant to initiate the review, a broad-based private-sector initiative should be undertaken to jump-start public debate about the state of U.S. intelligence -- a debate that never took place in 2004. The key issues that unfold from this debate should be high on the new president's agenda for change.

Jack Devine, a former CIA acting deputy director of operations and president of the Arkin Group, a New York-based intelligence consulting firm.