Frustrated intelligence reformers see window of opportunity

Forty studies dating back almost to the birth of the CIA have lamented that no one's really in charge of the nation's intelligence apparatus.

Commanding the U.S. intelligence community is not a job for James Bond. It's a job for former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, or maybe someone who channels Alexander Hamilton. Although "director of national intelligence" is a pretty glamorous title, much of the work wouldn't be. If ever there was a high-stakes management job in Washington, this would be it.

Advocates of intelligence reform saw their stock skyrocket on June 3 when George Tenet announced his resignation as director of central intelligence. Tenet's impending departure opens a long-awaited and potentially fleeting window of opportunity fora fundamental overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community's command structure. Frustrated for decades, the reformers want to ensure that the answer to "Who's in charge?" stops being "Nobody."

No fewer than 40 studies of the U.S. intelligence infrastructure -- some of them dating back almost to the CIA's birth in 1947 -- have lamented that no single person really runs the nation's intelligence efforts and have declared that the lack of clear leadership is a huge problem with enormous consequences.

Now, reform advocates can push for restructuring without seeming to register a vote of no confidence in Tenet. The status quo no longer seems frozen solid. As Ronald Marks, who spent 16 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, puts it, "The ice has broken; I can hear it all around."

The reform proposal quickly catching fire is the idea of creating a director of national intelligence, who would wield far more power -- including budgetary authority -- than directors of central intelligence have had. Many reformers envision that the new intelligence czar would be at the helm of the entire 15-agency U.S. intelligence apparatus. He or she would be charged with designing and implementing an overall strategy for gathering, analyzing, and disseminating U.S. intelligence about security threats, both foreign and domestic. And, the thinking goes, this new director would be held accountable in the event of a major intelligence failure.

There would still be a CIA director, but no director of central intelligence. And the new superchief would oversee the CIA's director.

Reformers don't claim that having a director of national intelligence would avert future terror attacks on American soil. But they do see creating the post as a necessary precursor for the fundamental structural and policy changes that they think are crucial if the U.S. intelligence community is going to significantly improve its record on assessing threats and preventing attacks.

As criticism of the intelligence community's performance has escalated in recent months, so too have demands for tapping a DNI and putting that person fully in charge. In the weeks before Tenet announced his exit, National Journal began informally polling intelligence experts inside and outside government, "If there were a director of national intelligence, who should it be?"

The most frequently mentioned names were those of former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and is now CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organizationworking to reduce the global threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and who, in the current administration, chairs the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board; and Norman Augustine, former chairman of defense mega-contractor Lockheed Martin.

A number of longtime advocates of reform had thought that, surely, the 9/11 attacks would jolt the intelligence bureaucracy out of its post-Cold War lethargy. At best, that many-headed creature, which costs taxpayers some $40 billion per year, has been hitting the snooze alarm. Since 2002, the White House has been sitting on (at the Pentagon's behest, some insiders say) a ready-to-release report on how to improve U.S. intelligence.

Scowcroft headed the commission that wrote the report, which, according a panel member, recommends appointing something like a director of national intelligence. The bipartisan House-Senate inquiry into the 9/11 attacks echoed that recommendation. Meanwhile, several members of Congress, notably Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have introduced legislation calling for the appointment of a DNI, but those bills have gained little traction on Capitol Hill thus far.

Less than 30 minutes after President Bush announced Tenet's resignation, Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, fired off a carpe diem press release calling for passage of her bill to create a DNI. "I have been critical of the prewar intelligence on Iraq's [weapons of mass destruction] and ties to terror, as well as failures leading up to the attacks of 9/11," Harman said in her press release. "With Tenet's departure, the president has the opportunity to fix these problems by transforming the job that Tenet held. We need a true director of the entire intelligence community -- all 15 agencies -- who has the necessary authority, responsibility, and accountability."

Those 15 include Air Force Intelligence; Army Intelligence; the CIA; Coast Guard Intelligence; the Defense Intelligence Agency; the Energy Department; the FBI; the Homeland Security Department; Marine Corps Intelligence; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (formerly the National Imagery and Mapping Agency); the National Reconnaissance Office; the National Security Agency; Navy Intelligence; the State Department; and the Treasury Department.

Earlier, Harman had said in an interview that the intelligence community has "a big problem, and we have a well-crafted, thoughtful answer."

Tenet's exit helps to depersonalize the debate over intelligence reform. A vacancy in the titular leadership post of the U.S. intelligence community offers a chance to redesign its power structure without making the process a referendum on Tenet, who happens to be a Bush family friend. Because the president won't likely want to endure the new round of second-guessing over intelligence-gathering that the Senate confirmation battle over a new CIA director would likely spark in an election year, a permanent replacement for Tenet probably won't be nominated until after Election Day.

In the meantime, the president is likely to feel pressure to join the growing chorus calling for intelligence reform. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is expected to soon release the results of its investigation into the intelligence failures behind the prewar assurances given to the White House that Iraq still had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and posed a real threat to the United States. Feinstein, a member of the committee, said in an interview that the report will advance the case for reform. The report of the highly publicized 9/11 commission is due to go to the White House by July 26 and very well might recommend creating the post of DNI. (The separate commission investigating U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq and elsewhere is not scheduled to offer its recommendations until next March.)

Whether to appoint a DNI could become an issue in the presidential campaign. Presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry has said that he would create the post. Bush has declared that he's open to various reform ideas, but he has not expanded on, or repeated, that statement since April.

The idea of reshuffling the deck in hopes of improving U.S. intelligence capabilities is anything but universally popular. The Pentagon has long balked at the idea of having its intelligence arm under the direct control of any presidential appointee other than the secretary of Defense. The military argues that shifting any of the control over its intelligence assets to someone outside the Pentagon would put its soldiers in grave danger and impair its ability to fight and win wars.

Nearly 30 years ago, as secretary of Defense in the Ford administration, Donald Rumsfeld bluntly shot down the idea of ceding control of intelligence satellites to the CIA. "If they're in my budgets, I'll run them," he said. Asked in 2002 about creation of a DNI-type post, Rumsfeld derided it as an effort to "move boxes and change lines" that was "probably not a great idea." He added his belief that such centralization would stifle innovation. Rumsfeld has a powerful ally in Vice President Cheney, himself a former Defense secretary.

Gen. William Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency, warns that if the Pentagon were forced to hand over control of the budgets for its intelligence assets, the NSA would "essentially collapse," because the Pentagon would likely retaliate by withdrawing the many military personnel who have been assigned to work for the agency. And Tenet has warned that failing to give a DNI control of his own "troops" -- as the director of central intelligence now has in his joint role as head of the CIA -- would make the new job weaker than the one Tenet is leaving.

Still, the CIA was born in 1947 over the military's vociferous objections. A similar fundamental power shift could happen again.

The Intelligence Wars

Since being created by the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA has been enmeshed in low-intensity conflict with the military. Advocates of creating a CIA wanted a separate, civilian-dominated agency charged with spying abroad, because they didn't want to trust the military with so much power. Opponents worried that a civilian agency would not make the military's intelligence needs paramount. One senator even wondered whether it was "a wholesome thing" to allow the CIA director to report to the president instead of to the military services. Even then-President Truman was lukewarm on the idea.

In the end, the decision was to establish a CIA whose head would be both the director of central intelligence and the director of the new agency. That person was to report to the president and, at least on paper, be responsible for coordinating and evaluating all U.S. intelligence. But the CIA could not infringe on any other agency's intelligence work, and the bulk of the intelligence budget would remain with the military services. Even as the CIA's role expanded as the Cold War grew hotter, the Pentagon always governed the gravitational pull of the intelligence budget.

"Though the CIA suggested dominance over all intelligence, that was really not so," says former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo. "It's all about the power struggle with the Pentagon."

The Defense Department controls 80 to 90 percent of the intelligence budget, including some of its biggest-ticket items: the NSA, which focuses on intercepting and deciphering signals; the National Reconnaissance Office, which procures major space gadgetry, such as spy satellites; and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which is in charge of mapping and other imagery intelligence. Those three absorb half of U.S. intelligence spending.

In Hart's view, what's desperately needed is a top-to-bottom examination of the National Security Act -- what works, what no longer does, and what never did. "The National Security Act was the statutory basis for the prosecution of the Cold War. The Cold War is over, and there has not been any comprehensive review of that act," said Hart, who co-chaired a pre-9/11 commission on what the nation was doing to defend itself against the threat of terrorism.

Although the Defense Department itself has undergone major restructuring since its creation in 1949, the intelligence community has never been fundamentally revamped. The most common explanation is that no president has deemed attempting to fix the intelligence community's problems worth the political capital that would need to be expended to overrule the Pentagon. And congressional leaders are loath to cross their powerful Armed Services committees.

"What history shows is that the windows of reform are few and fleeting," said intelligence expert Amy Zegart, a professor of policy studies at the University of California (Los Angeles). "And you've got to run through that window with as much as you can take with you."

The enmities among the intelligence community's various sectors make trying to more closely integrate them a daunting task. The NSA, for example, is much more hierarchical and militaristic than the CIA. Odom disdainfully says of the CIA's leadership, "They think power is being able to screw something else up. This is a residual from their 1950s thinking."

The primary impetus for creating the CIA was the desire to avoid another Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack on the United States. Yet Harman and many other reformers contend that the lack of an overall intelligence game plan is to blame for the United States' failure to anticipate some of the most significant events in recent decades, including not only the 9/11 terrorism attacks and the earlier attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and on the USS Cole, but also the collapse of the Soviet Union. More-recent examples include the failure to accurately gauge the threat posed by Iraq.

The Iran-Contra scandal and the disintegration of the Soviet Union led to many of the same calls for intelligence reorganization that are being heard today. In 1987, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., introduced a bill to create a director of national intelligence with budgeting authority. Then-Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., later joined the push. In 1992, Sen. David Boren and Rep. Dave McCurdy, Oklahoma Democrats who chaired the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence, introduced similar bills to give a single person authority over all intelligence agencies, civilian and military. The Oklahomans would have pulled analysis from all the agencies together and left the CIA responsible solely for clandestine operations.

"The world has changed, and the intelligence community must change with it," Boren said at the time. "It's time to be bold." But neither Congress nor the Clinton White House acted.

Tenet began his intelligence work in the late 1980s. In 1988, he became Boren's staff director on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. From that vantage point, he witnessed both the intelligence community's identity crisis after the fall of communism -- an era in which the community lost more than 20 percent of its civilian workforce -- and its subsequent efforts to shift its attention to terrorist threats. Appointed deputy director of central intelligence in 1995, Tenet rose to the No. 1 job two years later. He frustrated advocates of structural change when he set a pace that he described to the 9/11 commission in April as "evolutionary," not "revolutionary."

Indeed, the commission's report on the CIA's pre-9/11 operations found that even though Congress tried in the 1990s to enhance the powers of the director of central intelligence, "the vision of central coordination ... has not been realized." Specifically, Tenet and his predecessors had never developed the kinds of management and administrative tools that are now standard in most federal agencies required to show what taxpayers are getting for their money.

Under aggressive questioning from the 9/11 commission members about whether the head of the intelligence community ought to control the entire intelligence budget, Tenet reiterated his opposition but added that any recommendations for major change really ought to come from outside. The reason: He's so besieged by crises that he does not have time to contemplate how the intelligence community might be differently organized. "The day I retire, I'll be a great person to sit on one of these things," he told the panel, triggering appreciative laughter.

31 Flavors

Not all directors of national intelligence would be created equal.

Almost everyone who advocates having a DNI says the person should be independent of the CIA and responsible for evaluating the big picture, forecasting trends, and allocating resources. The central point of disagreement centers on the wonkish question of how much budget authority the new director should have.

The uninitiated might see budgetary authority as a small detail, but those in the trenches of the intelligence wars say the success of structural reform hinges on it. Although some proponents of a DNI say that the director would need no more authority than what Tenet has had, most fall into two camps.

Those in what can be called the Scowcroft camp argue that giving one person full control over the budgets and personnel of all 15 intelligence agencies is central to having a successful DNI. "To make [a DNI] effective, he has to have authority over the budget," Scowcroft said. The military intelligence budget can remain, nominally, with the Pentagon, he said, "but the authority to spend would be with the DNI."

Also in that camp are former Deputy Defense Secretary and CIA Director John Deutch and a host of other former top CIA officers. Kerry agrees with them. According to Kerry's adviser for national security, Rand Beers, the DNI "would have responsibility for the budget, personnel, and tasking of the intelligence community." Others, including Hart, say that budget control is paramount but could be given to the director of central intelligence without changing the job's name.

The other camp is headed by Harman and Feinstein, who consider themselves pragmatists. Harman, whose bill has 17 co-sponsors in the House, would give her director of national intelligence enhanced "reprogramming authority." That power would allow the director to shift money around if he disagreed with how, say, the Defense secretary had slated it to be spent. To fight the reprogramming, the Defense secretary would have to appeal to the president.

Harman hopes that her plan would mute Pentagon opposition enough to allow her bill to become law. "We don't blow up DOD," she says. "We have received some very positive informal comments from some senior DOD personnel."

But one person in the Scowcroft camp who has both defense and intelligence experience brands Harman's bill "fatally flawed." Although designed to appeal to the Pentagon and the Armed Services committees,"it emasculates the DNI," the critic contends.The reason:squishy budget authorityand a requirement that the deputy director of national intelligence report to the Pentagon as well as to the DNI.

Clearly, questions about the DNI's budgetary powers aren't the only ones about the theoretical position. Would the intelligence czar be a Cabinet member? Would the appointee have a fixed term or serve at the pleasure of the president? Would the director govern all intelligence agencies, including, for example, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or just those that don't report directly to a Cabinet department?

Harman's bill would not make the DNI a Cabinet member but would appoint the CIA director for a 10-year term. The DNI would have his or her own general counsel and inspector general, as well as several deputies. The DNI would also direct collection and analysis in all 15 intelligence agencies, including the FBI's Intelligence Office, but would not have to the power to hire and fire except in his or her immediate office.

Harman also goes beyond calling for a new director. Modeled on the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department reforms of 1986, her bill would modify the incentives within the intelligence community to foster joint activities among the intelligence agencies, such as by basing intelligence promotions on whether an employee in one agency has worked in another one.

Feinstein's bill takes a foot-in-the-door approach by focusing solely on creating a DNI as a Cabinet-level position and says that, once appointed, the new director would be able to evaluate the intelligence community and decide whether additional changes were necessary.

"It's a first step," Feinstein says. "The intelligence agencies ought to be separated out from the control of the secretary of Defense. It ought to be a community [that] really reports to the president and the Congress.

She adds, "We've got to look at the massive amount of money that is spent on intelligence and see if it really is directed toward this new, non-state terror world that we seem to be in, as opposed to state-to-state intelligence."

Still, skeptics abound. If the Defense Department were to lose its control over much of the intelligence budget, predicts national security scholar Richard Betts of Columbia University, the Pentagon would just find a way to replace whatever it had lost. Betts doubts that the DNI would be allowed to exercise complete authority. "I suspect when the dust settled, there would be less change than meets the eye," he said.

There are also questions about whether appointing a DNI would treat the symptoms of the intelligence community's shortcomings, but not the causes. Most of the problems identified in decades of commission reports, said John Pike, director of, point to lower-level difficulties -- dysfunctional agency management, or insufficient communication between the CIA and the NSA. "I think those problems are inherent in the existence of a CIA outside the Defense Department," Pike said. "You can relabel things all you want, but you're still going to be stuck" with the same old deficiencies.

Even advocates of having a DNI say that creating the job wouldn't magically make the intelligence community better able to collect or connect those infamous dots. But these proponents contend that having one top leader responsible for strategic thinking would provide a counterbalance to the military-dominated tactical orientation of today's intelligence community and, as a result, would lead to better long-term forecasting, especially for transnational threats, such as terrorism.

Overcoming Inertia

The difficulty of revamping the sprawling intelligence bureaucracy is evident in its 57-year history of inertia. But, especially since Tenet's exit announcement, intelligence reform is taking on an aura of inevitability.

Zegart sees the stars aligning for reform now that Tenet is departing. First, Tenet's opposition to instituting a DNI led to what she calls a "circle-the-wagons attitude" at the CIA, and she thinks that his resignation may cause the tide there to shift toward reform. Second, Zegart said, confirmation hearings for the next director, whether held this year or next, will give reformers a platform on which to advocate wholesale change. Third, she said, the Pentagon may be distracted by its struggle in Iraq and weakened by the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal and the alleged leaks of classified information to its now-fallen Iraqi golden boy, Ahmad Chalabi.

Up next is the 9/11 commission report. The panel is thought to be leaning strongly toward recommending some sort of DNI post. The panel has not been secretive about its interest in such a proposal; an October hearing focused almost exclusively on the idea. At least two commission members have a history of favoring appointment of a DNI: Vice Chairman Hamilton, and former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who also served on Scowcroft's panel.

Reform advocates are optimistic but don't expect any breakthrough until after Election Day. In the avalanche of criticism that followed the release of former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke's tell-all book, Against All Enemies, Bush displayed a new, if vague, openness to change. Bush told reporters on April 12, just a few weeks after the book's release, that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice "mentioned the other day something very interesting, and that is that, you know, that now may be the time to revamp and reform our intelligence services."

Bush has not spoken about intelligence reform publicly since then, not even after rumors that the White House might propose a DNI to pre-empt the 9/11 commission's expected recommendation. "The president has to take a much more vigorous leadership role," said Zegart, who is close to Rice. "Being open to reforms is not enough. A lot of successful change has to do with knowing that this is the president's priority. The president has moved forward on this, but he needs to do more, much more."

Meanwhile, Kerry's supporters say that, as president, the Democrat would make reform happen. "With the kind of presidential interest and leadership that Kerry could provide, I think we could see substantial reform," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who co-chaired the congressional joint inquiry into 9/11. And Hart, not surprisingly, says not to expect reform from Bush. "It would take a new and tough president to say to the secretary of Defense and the Pentagon, 'Your intelligence is now subordinate to the director of central intelligence,' " said Hart, who added that, if asked, he'd advise Kerry to make that declaration early.

Congress would have to buy the idea, too. Some Republican moderates, including Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, have voiced support. But the key people to win over are Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who chair the Armed Services committees.

And those who are wise to the ways of Washington warn against acting precipitously. Scowcroft said, "One of the things I worry about is that some kind of legislation will pass just as kind of a protest vote and that it will not be a carefully thought-out bill, and the administration will ignore it or veto it. Anything that comes out this [election] year will be bad."

Help Wanted

The help-wanted ad for a Director of National Intelligence would read something like this:

"Seeking giant with the capacity to inspire fear, awe, and allegiance. Needs bipartisan respect and a strong background in intelligence and the military. Excellent business management skills a must. Should enjoy a good tussle with Cabinet secretaries -- and know how to win. Dragon-slaying and cat-herding skills essential. Credibility with the information-technology set a plus. Congressional kiss-up capacity very helpful."

The job itself would be a greater challenge than launching a start-up. This director, whatever the title, would be replacing the director of central intelligence and trying to rebuild the community's coordinating capacity. So, the new czar would have to not only start a new operation but also combat being perceived, especially within the bureaucracy, as just another director of central intelligence with a new title and a few more aides.

The job would also require contradictory qualities, Graham said. An intelligence background is essential, but the new director also needs to be an honest broker who isn't seen as beholden to any particular agency. Similarly, the director must have the president's trust but must still be able to tell the White House what it doesn't want to hear.

Washington loves to name names, so long as those doing the naming don't get caught. So, National Journal coaxed names from prominent experts in and out of government, in exchange for the promise that no one would know whether they accurately predicted who will be the first DNI -- should there be one. National Journal whittled the prospects down to a baker's dozen.

And the nominees are:

  • Former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who co-authored the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction program and is now CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
  • Brent Scowcroft, chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a former national security adviser to two earlier presidents.
  • Norman Augustine, former CEO of defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
  • Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., who chairs the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
  • William Perry, secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration and now a Kerry adviser.
  • National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden.
  • Bobby Ray Inman, who has served as NSA director and deputy CIA director.
  • Joan Dempsey, executive director of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
  • David Boren, a former Oklahoma senator who chaired the Select Committee on Intelligence and recommended intelligence-community restructuring in 1992.
  • Former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., who co-chaired the Hart-Rudman Commission and is an adviser to Kerry.
  • Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire who co-chaired the Hart-Rudman Commission.
  • FBI Director Robert Mueller.
  • Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.