In April 2005, just five months after former CIA Director George Tenet was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom notwithstanding the Agency’s failure to put the pieces of the 9-11 intelligence together before the attack, a new “super-intelligence” agency of the US government was formed — the Directorate of National Intelligence. The purpose of creating this new umbrella intelligence agency, with a budget now in excess of $50 billion (in addition, of course, to the billions of dollars each of the individual agencies under it enjoys), was to resolve the myriad problems that had plagued our foreign intelligence system for decades — too many agencies with their own parochial interests and blinders, vague goals and missions, lack of a single and comprehensive budgetary authority, lack of coordinated technology and dissemination procedures, etc.
Now, just five years into the DNI’s existence, one of its former directors — Mike McConnell — is calling for yet another “top” intelligece agency to be created to oversee all the others, including the DNI. In fact, McConnell is advocating an entirely new department of the federal government be formed — the Department of Intelligence. This “mega intelligence agency” would be charged with — you guessed it — resolving the myriad problems that have plagued our foreign intelligence system for decades . . . Hopefully, neither the current administration nor the Congress will heed McConnell’s call.
The fact of the matter is, there is already too much bureaucracy infecting our foreign intelligence community; there was too much bureaucracy infecting the system in 2004 when Congress passed the intelligence reorganization bill that gave birth to the DNI. Bureaucracy stifles creativity, swift action and, perhaps most important, decisiveness; all tools essential for successful intelligence tradecraft. We need less not more bureaurcracy. That was the whole point to creating the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 — as the central federal government agency to gather, analyze, coordinate and disseminate foreign intelligence to key decision makers. Now, thanks to the creation of the DNI, the CIA no longer performs the key function that was the primary purpose for establishing the agency in the first place.
The many military intelligence agencies and offices, such as the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), which were supposed to fall under the CIA’s overall coordination umbrella, never really have done so, and no president since all these agencies were created in the aftermath of WW II, has made them do so. And therein lies the crux of the problem.
The bottom line is, no matter how many times Congress or the White House “reforms” or “reorganizes” our intelligence system, it will not have a meaningful or lasting positive impact until at least three thing happens. First, we need a president who will definitively, clearly and consistently decree that one intelligence agency is the central authority for prioritizing, gathering, coordinating, and disseminating foreign intelligence for the president, the cabinet and other key decision makers. No ifs, ands, or buts. Second, we need a president who has the backbone to fire intelligence officials who fail to perform. Neither the current president, Barack Obama, nor his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, have done this. Finally, we need a president who has sufficient faith and trust in that intelligence system he has staffed and is leading, to actually listen to the work product it provides.
Morale at the CIA remains low and its mission remains blurred. Meanwhile, across town, what should have been a simple task of tagging a Nigerian terrorist wannabee possessed of questionable IQ, as someone to watch and prevent from boarding a US airliner on Christmas Eve, couldn’t be accomplished because the right hand wasn’t talking to the left hand. Problems big and small will continue to plague our intelligence system until this president, or some future president, employs his “commander in chief” hat for a purpose clearly consistent with being the commander in chief — cut the bureaucracy, lay down the law to our intelligence agencies to get in line, do their job, stop fighing, and remember who they work for.