In intelligence revamp, technology challenge is just the beginning

By Neil Munro

December 3, 2001

In the debate about restructuring U.S. intelligence agencies, many of the most-heated disputes center on the role of technology. Some experts see technology as a vital remedy, while others say it can be a hazardous distraction.

Technology helps intelligence experts gather, analyze, and share important data in new and innovative ways, say its advocates. Those on the other side of the issue say that technology can foster a risk-averse culture that favors high-tech gizmos over agents who gather information on the ground in dangerous parts of the world.

At stake is the control of a large bureaucracy: The high-tech spy agencies currently run out of the Pentagon have budgets totaling at least $10 billion a year.

Technology is a critical component of any overhaul, but "the most important [need] is to build a culture that is programmed to constantly challenge assumptions," Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told National Journal. "We've got to break down the [bureaucratic] culture" of inflexibility, said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., the committee's ranking member. "It will take leadership, it will not be done overnight, [and] it will involve moving people out and new people in," he said. "Will we do it? I'm not sure."

The war on terrorism has pushed the issue of restructuring intelligence agencies onto President Bush's desk amid growing pressure from legislators and other advocates seeking a major overhaul. Congressional leaders are considering several alternatives, but the onus is on the White House to act, say most advocates of change. "Major reforms will only occur with strong presidential leadership," Graham said.

"The President asked for a comprehensive review of U.S. intelligence in May," said a White House official. "The review has been under way since then and will be presented in the coming months." Two panels will offer recommendations. One is made up of senior government officials, the other of private-sector experts who are led by Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser to Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush.

The main problem that the panel members are confronting is the inability of the nation's vast intelligence apparatus to collect and share information on plots to mount surprise attacks, such as the one that occurred September 11, say legislators and other advocates.

Currently, the nation's intelligence structure consists of multiple agencies reporting to multiple chiefs. The Pentagon controls many agencies: the four military services' intelligence agencies, plus the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and several others. Outside the Pentagon, other agencies include the intelligence divisions of the State and Treasury departments; the Justice Department's FBI; and the independent CIA. The head of the CIA is also the Director of Central Intelligence, who directs the nation's intelligence apparatus but has only limited oversight authority over agencies' programs.

The anti-terrorism law passed by Congress in October removes some legal barriers to collecting information and sharing it among agencies. Top officials have followed up the legal changes with new policies designed to bolster anti-terrorism efforts.

"We must instill a new culture of cooperation," said Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson. For example, to put the FBI's focus on preventing terrorist attacks, the bureau is changing its organizational structure and reducing the amount of attention given to routine crimes, such as bank robberies. Also, the FBI is distributing to other agencies a "daily summary ... of significant developments in the terrorism investigation, including information developed through [formerly secret] grand jury investigations," Thompson said on November 8.

But such increased coordination is not enough, say some observers. One advocate for deeper change is Scowcroft, who, according to an article in The Washington Post, is recommending that control of the biggest high-tech spy agencies at the Pentagon be transferred to the Director of Central Intelligence, currently George J. Tenet. The three agencies affected would be the National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic eavesdropping; the National Reconnaissance Office, which designs spy satellites; and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which directs the satellites, analyzes their pictures and data, and produces maps.

If their collective budget of at least $10 billion were to be transferred from the Pentagon to the DCI, the director would have greater leeway to divert money from the construction of satellites and other data collectors and put it toward new computers intended to study, translate, and share the intelligence collected by the satellites.

Observers expect Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to fight such a transfer of authority. Pentagon officials have long struggled to better integrate their intelligence agencies with combat units and weapons-development programs.

Defense officials' differing priorities have complicated that task: Intelligence officials often want to hoard their information to prevent leaks to the enemy; soldiers want the data sent quickly to the battlefield; and program managers want the information used to develop new weapons. Greater integration would be harder to achieve if the three Defense agencies were placed under the control of the DCI, who does not report to the Pentagon.

Opposition to the transfer can be muted by giving oversight over roughly half of those three agencies' budgets to the Pentagon and Congress's armed services committees, said Robert Steele, a former intelligence official who is now the chief executive officer of Open Source Solutions Inc., an intelligence company in Oakton, Va.

Steele, who has long advocated a major overhaul of the agencies to deal with terrorist threats, says that some Senators can be brought on board if negotiators can show that a transfer would not result in job losses in their states. He also said that reformers should seek governors' support by creating state-level intelligence centers where federal intelligence experts can be linked to local emergency crews.

But in the battles for power in Washington, "you can't go wrong by betting on the status quo," said Stewart Baker, a partner at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson and a former legal counsel to the NSA. "It is very hard to overcome the status of the Defense Secretary during wartime ... [although] if anyone can do it, it is Brent Scowcroft," Baker said.

Better central oversight of U.S. intelligence efforts is needed, said Shelby, but "just moving people around and seemingly changing the structure will not do it." He advocates a more innovative system that pays intelligence officials more and uses private-sector expertise. "Many people would do this because they know we're in a war," he said.

Graham said that Scowcroft's proposal to give the DCI more oversight authority should be closely examined. He also said that the intelligence agencies need extra funding to rejuvenate themselves and to develop promising-but risky-technology.

During the late 1950s, for instance, the intelligence agencies launched 13 experimental spy satellites before the first one succeeded in sending photos back to Earth in December 1960. Those photos showed the much-touted Soviet superiority in nuclear-tipped missiles to be a fiction, according to material declassified by the CIA.

One approach under consideration, according to a congressional staff member, would create an agency to promote the development of spy-technology software that could automatically detect significant data, translate it into English, correlate it with other data, and present it to analysts. But any overhaul of agencies must also change incentives, the staffer said; otherwise, officials will continue to hoard information.

For example, the CIA-developed Intelink, a classified Internet system on which spy agencies can theoretically swap top-secret data, was undermined when agency heads barred lower-level officials from sharing raw data, intelligence officials said. Only "finished product," such as briefing books on particular threats and countries, is now posted on the site, they said.

Technology may actually hinder reform, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA field agent. "New and better technology will not crack the grip of `inside' officers-the fake diplomats-over the culture and modus operandi of the [CIA]," he argues. Instead, he said, the CIA's directorate of operations--the office that handles agents--must be reformed so that agents are willing to spend years in far-off, dangerous regions, learning strange languages and quietly cultivating contacts and friendships that may someday prove vital.

"To the extent that technology takes the foreground in any discussion of the clandestine service is the extent to which the conversation is fluff," Gerecht said.

Others make a similar point about the nation's extensive array of spy satellites, which, because they are immensely valuable and politically uncontroversial, have contributed to the agencies' reluctance to use networks of hidden spies. According to Thomas Donnelly, an analyst at the Washington-based Project for the New American Century, the CIA is touting the success of its missile-armed drones called Predators in Afghanistan in an effort to offset its failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot or to recruit spies in Afghanistan.

Reform must reach beyond the intelligence agencies, some observers say. Congress needs to appropriate more money, said one intelligence official now trying to improve an underfunded intelligence agency. Also, said Baker, "if the American people want to have better intelligence, everybody has to recognize that the best intelligence operations go bad, and the reaction can't be to hang the people who had the imagination and audacity to take risks."

He added: "If the body politic says, 'Nice try, next time don't get caught,' it will work." In turn, such risk taking could spur the development of innovative spy technology, Baker said.

By Neil Munro

December 3, 2001