There they go again, I thought to myself while listening Friday to 9/11 Commission Chair, Gov. Tom Kean, tell Senators for the umpteenth time, “I do not find today anyone really in charge of the intelligence community.” Kean’s colleagues have been singing from the same sheet of music. Jamie Gorelick: “The authorities to act cohesively do not exist.”
Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton shared with the Senators his frustration at the answer he got when he kept asking intelligence community officials who is in charge. “The President,” they said. Hamilton branded this “not a very satisfactory answer,” adding, “no one would say that the Director of Central Intelligence is in charge.”
It need not be so. During my 27-years at the Central Intelligence Agency I served under nine directors and worked closely with four of them. They were in charge.
One of them, Admiral Stansfield Turner, came to the C.I.A. from his post as commander of the 6th Fleet with a keen appreciation of the need for the authority necessary to carry out his responsibilities. Recognizing that his authority over the intelligence community was largely ad referendum to the president, he went to President Carter and obtained what was needed. Writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, Turner recounted that Carter issued a presidential executive order giving DCI Turner authority over all 15 intelligence agencies “to reallocate funds and people among them and to set priorities for both collecting and analyzing intelligence.” Turner notes, “This enabled a far greater degree of coordination than we have today.”
So if today “no one is in charge,” it does not have to be that way. Hamilton’s comment notwithstanding, it is a completely satisfactory answer that the president is in charge, and that he need only empower the DCI by executive order to enable him to get the job done.
Did the commission fail to solicit Admiral Turner’s views during its long investigation?…or fail to take them into account? It is difficult to believe that it is a totally new concept to the commission that, as Turner puts it, “the recommended position of National Intelligence Director (NID) already exists…It is the Director of Central Intelligence created by the National Security Act of 1947, with responsibility for coordinating the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies.”
Did commission staff miss Turner’s thoughtful op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor of May 28, 2002, in which he emphasized that “With a stroke of the pen tomorrow, the president could make the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) responsible for ensuring coordination and give him/her the authority to do so…and thus move a good distance toward rectifying the failure last summer to deduce what would happen on Sept. 11.” Turner was quick to add, “Without the president’s personal intervention and exercise of decisive leadership,” one cannot ensure that future performance will be better.
Fast Track…to ???
Instead, President George W. Bush chose yesterday to go with the political flow and endorse the commission’s recommendation for a National Intelligence Director—but without the teeth of budgetary authority over the intelligence community. This won’t get anywhere and, arguably, that is just as well.
Admiral Turner’s article on Sunday reiterated what so many others have been saying—and with good reason; i. e., the last thing we need is a new layer of bureaucracy. This truism, which should be self-evident, was spoken first by one who ought to know, Tom Ridge, head of the recently created Department of Homeland Security. I was struck by his very quick—and somewhat cryptic—comment on the proposal for a National Intelligence Director: “I don’t think you need a czar,” Ridge said on Fox News Channel. “We already have one level of bureaucracy that we don’t need,” said the czar of Homeland Security, who reportedly has decided to quit at the end of the year.
When the commission report was released on July 22, I ran into 9/11 Commissioner Slade Gorton at the BBC TV studio in Washington where we were each being interviewed. I used the opportunity to voice my skepticism regarding whether the proposed post of NID is really necessary, noting that the DCI can already discharge most of the tasks in the portfolio of the proposed NID.
Gorton gave a wince/smile and then whispered in my ear, “Yes, but he didn’t use those authorities.” He was then called in for his live interview, so I was unable to ask the obvious follow-up question: If the main problem is a dearth of courage or competence, or a “lack of imagination,” how is adding another bureaucratic level going to fix that?
My brief encounter with Gorton came to mind as I read a short piece in Sunday’s Washington Post by William Odom, the highly respected former Director of the National Security Agency:
“No organizational design will compensate for incompetent incumbents…When we ask how to improve the intelligence community’s performance, we must recognize that it cannot be much better than the performance of the policymakers and commanders who own it.”
I am certain that the 9/11 commissioners mean well. How they came up with the NID proposal may be explained by the hubris that often clings to senior folks with “former ___” titles, even when they wander far from their area of expertise and experience. The discussion of the NID proposal makes it clear that the commissioners lack a basic understanding of the intelligence community—indeed, of how things work in the executive branch of government.
This naiveté shines through with equal clarity in their proposal to give a National Intelligence Director unprecedentedly wide budgetary authority. The past few decades are littered with abortive proposals to give the Director of Central Intelligence authority over the Pentagon’s intelligence budget. This, quite simply, will never happen, and there is a reasonable argument that it never should.
If naiveté sounds harsh, I make no apology. Much is at stake; there has been enough pontificating; it is time for plain speaking—the more so, inasmuch as so many influential people, who cannot be depended upon to take the time to study the commission’s recommendations, are already fawning over them as a deus ex machina.
All ten of the commissioners are either politicians or lawyers; some are both. Not one has worked in the intelligence community; only two have a modicum of experience in the executive branch of the federal government (John Lehman, who was Secretary of the Navy for six years under President Ronald Reagan and Jamie Gorelick, who was Deputy Attorney General for three years under President Bill Clinton). Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission also lacks executive experience in the federal government. It was Zelikow who told an interviewer that the commission’s recommendations are “not a panacea. We may not have the right answers.” He got that right.
The unseemly, “fast-track” haste to judgment is, in the well-chosen adjective used by former State Department intelligence director, Phyllis Oakley, “wacky.” But as the election approaches, no candidate can risk appearing soft on terrorism by raising the necessary questions regarding how a reconfigured intelligence structure would really work. Even before hearing testimony at Friday’s first hearing by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Chairwoman Susan Collins of Maine and Vice Chairman Joe Lieberman of Connecticut expressed support for creating the post of national intelligence director. Committee members proceeded to fawn over Kean and Hamilton, upon whom they are relying for expertise on intelligence community issues that are as complicated as they are important.
Warning: Intelligence reform proposals and politics are a noxious mix. And experience has proved that congressionally mandated commissions often do more harm—serious harm—than good.
In 1996, for example, the Aspin-Brown “Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community” recommended transferring to the Defense Department the Director of Central Intelligence’s responsibility for processing and disseminating satellite imagery. Understandably, the Senate Intelligence Committee expressed serious misgivings at this evisceration of the DCI’s charter for all-source analysis but in the end acquiesced and the legislation passed.
The practical result? Today Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has imagery interpretation under his aegis. I believe that this goes a long way toward explaining why our extremely sophisticated satellites and imagery analysts were unable to check and disprove the spurious reporting served up by imaginative Iraqi defectors regarding weapons of mass destruction. Ceding imagery analysis to the Pentagon was clearly an egregious mistake with profound implications for the objectivity of intelligence collection and analysis. But this seems to have escaped the attention of the 9/11 commission—and our lethargic mainstream press.
Now think back to 1998 when the congressionally mandated “Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States” led by Donald Rumsfeld succeeded in revising a 1995 intelligence community estimate in order to exaggerate the strategic threat from countries like North Korea. Key conclusions—since proven wrong—embodied in the Rumsfeld-revised estimate met his immediate need quite nicely by greasing the skids for early deployment of a multi-billion dollar, unproven anti-ballistic missile system.
That whole exercise wreaked havoc on morale among honest analysts—the more so as they watched the analyst who chaired the revised estimate go on to bigger and better things. A man who gets the desired results, he was later handpicked to chair the infamous—and equally wrong—estimate of October 1, 2002 on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Ironically, Congress never adopted the prescient recommendations of the Hart-Rudman “United States Commission on National Security/21st Century.” Had those recommendations been given appropriate attention, there might have been no 9/11.
What really rankles is the fraud being perpetrated on the families of the victims of 9/11, unintentional though it may be. The families pressed heroically for a non-partisan, independent investigation. What they got was a bipolar panel, thoroughly partisan at each pole, who nonetheless grew to like one another and decided to settle for the lowest common denominator and—worse still—to hold no one accountable.
Many of the families evidenced a deep need for some reason to hope that, if they were tenacious enough, some good could be extracted from the experience of that horrible day; that there was some reason to hope that by following up on their terrible loss they might contribute in some way to preventing similar tragedies in the future.
To what can all this be compared? It is as though their van broke down on the New Jersey turnpike. Another van with ten well meaning senior executives stops to help. Only two of the ten have any experience with motor vehicles: one spent three years at an auto manufacturer’s corporate headquarters; the other devoted six years to running a trucking enterprise. None had taken Automechanics-101. No matter. They fall to the task of diagnosing the van’s problem anyway and come up with recommended solutions that are as good as their expertise in auto mechanics.
There is always hope. I have the highest respect for the leaders of the 9/11 families. Gradually they will see that:
- Treating merely the symptoms of terrorism is quixotic;
- The soil and roots of terrorism must be dug and uncovered;
- As the 9/11 report acknowledges in a very subdued way, it is Washington’s strong bias toward Israel and its invasion of Iraq that produce the long lines at al-Qaeda recruiting stations and brings on code-orange alerts;
- That our current approach to defeating terrorism by trying to kill all the terrorists is akin to trying to eradicate malaria by shooting all the mosquitoes.
No, we have to drain the swamp where the terrorists breed.
It is important to remember that without the courage of the families there would have been no 9/11 commission. They continue to merit and enjoy credibility and clout that politicians lack on this important issue. But there is a danger that they could jeopardize this by letting themselves become political pawns over the next three months. Rather than being co-opted by the commissioners into lobbying for dubious proposals, the families may wish to consider taking a well-deserved break from that and turn their attention instead to the key question of which of the candidates for president would be most likely to prevent another 9/11.
Why the Rush?
Think about it. If there is substance behind the heightened alerts to terrorist attack before the election, a middle-schooler could conclude that this is precisely the wrong time to be implementing serious reforms of the kind recommended. These would inevitably be disruptive in the extreme. This alone would strongly suggest applying the brakes and letting the new Congress examine the whole problem afresh.
Meanwhile, there is a quick fix for one key issue. As former DCI Stansfield Turner has indicated, President Bush could immediately sign an executive order giving the Acting DCI the authority that Turner enjoyed to force better coordination among the various intelligence agencies. Odd that this did not occur to the commission.
Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst from the administration of John F. Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He authored “A Compromised Central Intelligence Agency: What Can Be Done?” in Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense: Restoring America’s Promise at Home and Abroad to be published by the Milton Eisenhower Foundation in October.
This article first appeared on TomPaine.com.