DHS experience is cautionary tale for new intelligence director

Whoever takes over as the new chief of the intelligence apparatus could learn from the early, faltering steps of the Homeland Security Department.

Certainly, these lessons would be useful not only to the new intelligence director but to Ridge's likely successor, Michael Chertoff, who at his Feb. 2 confirmation hearing repeatedly stressed the importance of seeking "opportunities to learn" from past mistakes.

In grappling with its new national security challenges, the U.S. government has developed a fetish for reorganization.

The Bush administration's post-9/11 obsession with making the United States less vulnerable to terrorists has so far led to creation of the White House Office of Homeland Security, the Department of Homeland Security, the Homeland Security Council, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, and the National Counterterrorism Center. And, of course, late last year the president signed legislation establishing a director of national intelligence.

"I keep asking people, 'Are we reformed yet?' " says Amy Zegart, a professor of public policy at the University of California (Los Angeles) and a longtime student of the structure of the intelligence agencies.

As the Homeland Security Department heads toward its second birthday and the government prepares to implement its latest anti-terrorism reorganization by selecting a director of national intelligence, it's time to ask: In all of this organizational churning, have we learned any lessons that can be applied to the upcoming intelligence redesign?

According to Homeland Security's first inspector general, the answer is that the department's early years should give the new director of national intelligence pause. "The Department of Homeland Security's problems in the last two years constitute a cautionary tale, as efforts begin to implement the 9/11 commission law," says Clark Kent Ervin, who was inspector general until December. "I am skeptical that an organizational change will result, necessarily, in improvements in the intelligence community's performance."

But now-departed Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has some very different advice. "My recommendation [to the director of national intelligence] is: Let DHS be the primary agency with which you share the information that is relevant down to the states and locals," he said in a farewell discussion with reporters last week.

To be sure, being the first director of national intelligence will not be the same as being the first secretary of Homeland Security. Running a department is different from coordinating a community. And pulling together 22 disparate agencies is arguably more difficult than corralling 15 agencies that have a history of more or less working together. "He inherits a better landscape," Ridge says.

But there are important parallels between the jobs. They both involve overseeing domains that underwent a painful birthing process. In both cases, Congress rose up against the White House's initial opposition, marshaled families of 9/11 victims, and embarrassed President Bush into embracing the latest reorganizational "solution" to the nation's security problems. Both the 180,000-person Homeland Security Department and the 500-to-650-person Office of the Director of National Intelligence are efforts to centralize planning and to coordinate government resources to thwart a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Both of the first people to hold the jobs are -- or will be -- new kids on the block among some very territorial, well-connected, elbows-out departments and agencies.

The new intelligence chieftain might have an easier initiation period if he or she learns from Homeland Security's early, faltering steps. So, National Journal surveyed 25 national security experts -- who have experience at the department, in intelligence, at the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the private sector, or in academia -- on what can be drawn from the Homeland Security Department's very mixed record. The chief lessons can be distilled as follows:

1. Get White House Backup

2. The Alpha Wolf Rules

3. Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize

4. Management Matters

5. Think Expansively

Given the extraordinarily high expectations placed on the new intelligence office -- much like those the Department of Homeland Security has tried to meet -- the best advice for the new director may be to stockpile antacids. "The first DNI will have a completely miserable experience on many levels," predicts former White House Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Richard Falkenrath. Former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., who co-chaired the Hart-Rudman Commission on terrorism, recommends that the new director reread The Prince and channel his inner Machiavelli.

Lesson 1: Get White House Backup

Begin by getting the president on your side. Several sources who clocked time at the White House and at executive branch agencies name Ridge's failure to get White House backing as the mistake that has haunted the consensus-driven ex-governor and committed team player. "He's a decent, honest man in a world of thieves," as a Ridge friend puts it.

To avoid repeating Ridge's mistake, former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke says, anyone contacted by the president about becoming director of national intelligence job should try to nail down White House support before agreeing to be nominated.

The conversation should go something like this, Clarke says: "Mr. President, I'm coming into a new job. The secretary of Defense [position] is 55 years old. The secretary of State has been around for 200 years. The first year of this job is going to determine, for the rest of time, whether it's an important job. You saw, with the drug czar, that offices in the White House can be turned into a nothing job. If you want to make this a successful institution, you've got to let me win a few battles. I will choose them judiciously.... If you're not prepared to do that, give [this job] to someone else."

Clarke says the nominee-to-be might add: "I may find the need, during the first year, to fire one of the intelligence directors, and I will need your support. You have to make very clear to all the intelligence leaders, including [newly appointed Director of Central Intelligence] Porter Goss, that I am their boss. They have to go through me."

Based on what he's heard about potential nominees, Clarke says he'd bet that a conversation like that will happen and that the president will agree to give the first director of national intelligence a strong hand. (Already, the White House has been turned down by at least one person. Former CIA Director Robert Gates says he reluctantly declined.)

Down the line, maintaining good relations with the president and the White House senior staff will prove crucial for the first DNI, predicts Falkenrath, who helped design DHS during his stint at the White House. "A big reorganization tends to be White House-driven," he says. "In the early phase, the White House staff who are involved feel a lot of ownership.... There's a constant source of tension with new appointees to the new organization."

His advice to the DNI: Don't fight the White House. Such battles are futile. Nevertheless, he says, "you've got to try to get the White House to give you good people." How? "It's pure interpersonal politics."

Lesson 2: The Alpha Wolf Rules

Even as it was being built, the Department of Homeland Security was losing clout. Although the legislation that created the department spelled out its "very specific" intelligence responsibilities, notes one former administration official, "virtually none of them came to pass."

The first blow was the White House decision -- announced in Bush's 2003 State of the Union address just four days after Tom Ridge started his new job -- to establish the Terrorist Threat Integration Center outside of DHS to meld all of the terrorist information the government collects. Senior officials at DHS had thought that terrorist-threat integration was what they were supposed to do. Then, the White House put the FBI in charge of consolidating the government's multitude of terrorist watch lists and gave it responsibility for investigating terrorist financing.

The alpha wolf rules, and Ridge's failure to win interagency battles early on, say sources who worked at the White House and the department, left him unable to win the respect of his Cabinet colleagues. "I don't think the Department of Homeland Security ever had a red line of 'What are the things we can't live with?'" says James Carafano, a homeland-security and defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "The reason was, 'Look, we're just getting our act together.'" Carafano said the department should have put its game face on and demanded control over key responsibilities, such as domestic-intelligence analysis.

One need look no further than the protracted negotiations over the legislation establishing the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to know that the new director's fiercest turf battles will likely be with the secretary of Defense. Before a director has even been nominated, the Pentagon has made a major landgrab. According to leaked reports that have made headlines, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is directing new spying operations. In theory, the decision to give the Pentagon such powers should be made by the new director, say Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., authors of the intelligence reform bill. Last week, they wrote Rumsfeld to express their concern.

Clearly, Hart says, the new director must lay down the law early on by having a conversation with his agency heads much like the one that Clarke recommended the DNI have with the president. The conversation should go something like this, Hart advises: "I'm the new boss for intelligence. I'm really looking forward to working with all of you. But I've just had a talk with the president, and he said he would support me, which means the following 10 things.... There will be no backdooring and appeals of me; the buck stops here; the president has just said he doesn't want to talk to you." And Hart suggests the intelligence chief initiate a similar conversation with key members of Congress.

The president's continued support will also be crucial in helping the director of national intelligence fight the inevitable turf battles, Falkenrath says. "Don't think that the legislation is going to solve your problems in the interagency battles," he says. "The only thing that is going to solve your problems is the ability to get the president to support you at key junctures. The White House is going to be mediating the DNI's relationship with everyone else." And many security experts say that those relationships will be set in stone within the first year.

Lesson 3: Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize

With a long and winding To Do list from Congress and the White House, the Homeland Security Department started out trying to juggle far too many tasks. And just as the department's doors opened, the United States went to war with Iraq.

"It was more important to get it done quick than to get it done right," Heritage's Carafano says of the department's approach. "Let's not pressure the DNI to solve every problem in the first 30 days."

In Falkenrath's view, "DHS had a very rocky first nine months. It was a very difficult phase, where there was just too much going on for the people who were in place to manage it effectively."

Even when the department has tried to focus its energy, the results have been scattershot.

For example, although the department is attempting to develop a list of places and things whose protection is most critical, it has not developed any meaningful way of determining whether a Wal-Mart in Indianapolis or a golf course in Dallas should be included -- and, if it is, what its relative importance is compared with, say, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Jefferson Memorial. The current database of potentially critical infrastructure items numbers more than 850,000. "They're still trying to hone it after all this time," says a source in the private sector who does business with the department. "There's no national standard by which the vulnerability of those assets is being determined."

To be sure, the department has logged scores of accomplishments as far-flung as the US-VISIT border-security system, a public-preparedness campaign, strong relationships with state and local jurisdictions, a doubling of the rate of drug seizures, and a homeland-security command center. Many people at DHS have worked tirelessly. But to what end? Two years after the department's debut, the verdict from many observers, both inside and outside DHS, is that it is still little more than a loose collection of nearly two dozen agencies.

"One of the critical problems facing the Department of Homeland Security," says its former inspector general, "is it remains largely still 22 different disparate components, many of which were dysfunctional when they came over to the Department of Homeland Security, and many of them still are."

If the new intelligence office is to operate smoothly, its director's initial goals should be few -- one or two -- and attainable, say White House alums, including Clarke and Falkenrath. For example, Falkenrath says, the director will have a choice of either establishing long-range budget planning or becoming the supreme intelligence adviser to the president. "You're not going to be able to do both at the same time, overnight," Falkenrath says. "Pick the one you're most likely to succeed at."

Clarke advises the director of national intelligence to mount an early challenge to the intelligence bureaucracy's established way of doing things. He pointed to a project that then-CIA Director Gates tried to champion. Called "Cheapsat," the program would have ditched the intelligence community's prized satellite-building program and started using lower-cost assembly-line models. The shift would have allowed the government to launch more satellites and still have money to shift to human intelligence-gathering. Critics argued that the plan was technologically infeasible. Gates lost. Several years later, Motorola began producing assembly-line satellites. Clarke says that the idea is still worth pursuing and that the director could use Cheapsat as a way to challenge the powerful National Reconnaissance Office and show his budgetary mettle.

Still, before making major changes and launching new programs, the new director should get the lay of the land within the intelligence community, emphasizes Suzanne Spaulding, who helped write the intelligence legislation as staff director for the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee. The way to start, she says, is to get a handle on the overall intelligence budget and to claim the leading role in financial planning for the entire intelligence community. She drew a parallel to Rumsfeld's ongoing effort to have the Defense Department know where all its resources are deployed at any given time.

Clarke says the director should go further -- by reslicing the budget according to function. By dividing the 15-agency intelligence budget into categories -- such as counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, counterintelligence, research and development, and counter-proliferation -- the director could avoid arguing about, say, the National Security Agency's budget and instead take a broader view of available resources. Such an approach would also put the director in the best position to set priorities for the intelligence community as a whole.

The problems encountered by the Homeland Security Department, and by other anti-terror entities created in the past three years, also spotlight the importance of follow-through: Articulating a priority doesn't actually achieve a goal. "Do you have a road map?" asks Daniel Prieto, a former aide to the Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee and a onetime investment banker. "Do you have a manager who is actually able to follow it?"

Lesson 4: Management Matters

Without a functioning back office, nobody reacts when the person at the top of the organizational chart pushes a lever. At Homeland Security, says former Inspector General Ervin, "too often it's been a case of simply announcing something and not rolling up the department's sleeves, calling together the relevant people, and measuring on a consistent basis how far along they are."

The challenge has been getting employees to see the need to adopt integrated management systems across the huge department, says Darryl Moody, vice president for homeland security at BearingPoint, a management consulting firm that is working with the department on 80 projects. Moody's argument is that DHS officials need to know where the resources are so they can readily shift them to counter evolving terrorist threats. If they can't, lives are in jeopardy. Although that thinking is taking hold among people working to merge DHS's finances, he says, getting it adopted in the information-technology arena has been slow going.

Moody predicts that the new intelligence director will have a tough time persuading 15 agencies to modify behavior that hasn't changed much since the Cold War. Add to that the overlay of interagency warfare, and Falkenrath warns that the new director is "just going to get taken to the cleaners. Every single agency that has to give up anything to him will game the system as much as possible. Only by having an army of accountants and budgeteers and midlevel managers on your side going through every execution order can you fight this tendency."

But the nitty-gritty of management offers an opportunity for the new director to assert himself, Clarke notes. If the Homeland Security Department or the FBI can't get its own information systems in order, the DNI could temporarily hand the task over to, say, the National Security Agency, which has mastered information systems.

Lesson 5: Think Expansively

Ridge made sure that "homeland security" was defined to include state and local governments and their "first responders." Nearly every state now has a homeland-security office.

The director of national intelligence has a similar opportunity to redefine "intelligence-gathering" so that it includes state and local efforts, note Ridge and many others. While the new director likely won't be as visible to the public as Ridge was, he or she could highlight the contributions that state and local officials can make to intelligence-collection.

Massachusetts' homeland-security policy adviser, John Cohen, says, "We have to redefine how we think of intelligence. We have to take information that was produced through clandestine activities overseas and blend it with information that is collected through routine activities of state and local police officers."

A good starting point, says Spaulding, a former CIA assistant general counsel, would be to assign an aide to define homeland-security intelligence needs. From there, the new director could create a two-way communication system between the traditional intelligence community and the cop on the beat, or the hospital administrator.

Taken together, the moral of these lessons is: What happens after the reorganization can matter more than the restructuring blueprint. Reorganization offers a high-visibility -- but not necessarily productive -- way for the government to address Americans' fears.

Absent a repeat of 9/11, measuring the effectiveness of the first director of national intelligence could be difficult. One handy gauge, though, might be whether the director calms the government's mania for reorganizing its anti-terror resources.