Charlie Allen is repackaging Homeland Security intelligence to boost the department's reputation.
"We didn't do this sort of thing at the CIA," Charlie Allen mutters good-naturedly as he poses for a photographer, trying to ignore a strobe light flashing less than a yard from his face.
The new intelligence chief for the Homeland Security Department, Allen - who spent 47 very good years at the CIA - is standing in the press gallery of DHS' Nebraska Avenue complex in Washington, where the podium has become a makeshift portrait studio. DHS is asking Allen to change his ways - on the day of the shoot, he was scheduled for back-to-back interviews.
But his real task will be to change the department and its intelligence operations, which have suffered from weak leadership and meager resources since their creation three years ago. Can he do it?
"I can't think of a better person" for the chief intelligence officer job, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., told Allen at an October hearing. "I think you are a change agent. If somebody can get in there and get their arms around it, I believe it's you. We're counting on you to do the right thing there."
Allen's tenacity and longevity made him something of a legend within the CIA. Even in his fifth decade of service to the agency, he kept the hours of a person half his age. "Charlie was in every day before 6 a.m., and he didn't leave until 8 at night," says John Gannon, a former senior CIA official who served alongside Allen. Gannon should know: The two men parked their cars in the same CIA lot reserved for top officials.
As one admirer gushed to U.S. News and World Report last year, "If you don't think you're getting your money's worth out of the federal government, look at Charlie Allen."
In 1985, Allen was the first within the CIA to surmise that Oliver North was using the agency to do more than free U.S. hostages in Iran, and probably was funneling ill-gotten gains to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. In 1991, Allen warned of Saddam Hussein's "surprise" invasion of Kuwait. And in 2002, he pressed the agency to go to extra lengths to determine the truth about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs, including interrogating relatives of Saddam's scientists.
"You could disagree with Charlie on issues, on the way he relentlessly drove them - and I certainly have in my time - but look at [his record] over a period of years," says Gannon, who is now a vice president for global analysis at BAE Systems.
Allen hasn't always been right, of course. He also has been catastrophically wrong. In 1973, he reviewed intelligence showing Egypt and Syria running military exercises along the Israeli border and decided it was a bluff. He wrote as much in the President's Daily Brief that went to Richard Nixon. Shortly thereafter, the two countries invaded Israel, launching the Yom Kippur War.
"I was seared by that experience," Allen says. "I swore I would always work a lot harder in re-examining my assumptions and views." That blunder plays a large part in what motivates him to be a "pile driver," as Gannon characterizes him.
Only weeks into his new job at DHS, Allen already is getting down to business. He has reorganized his staff and fired off a memo to DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson requesting more and better facilities and resources.
Allen also has ordered up a new enterprise architecture so departments can more easily share information, and started drawing up a strategic plan to remake his division. The plan, he says, will include specific deliverables, timelines and performance metrics (unlike Secretary Michael Chertoff's overhaul plans for DHS, announced in July). The first draft is due in a month.
Allen also has convened a new Homeland Security Intelligence Council, comprising the top intelligence officials from each DHS division, which will meet regularly to resolve thorny information-sharing problems and will keep the department's far-flung components - such as the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Coast Guard - from forgetting the front office's intelligence needs.
It's clear Allen is serious about changing the intelligence division, now re-named the Office of Intelligence. That's a good thing: Approaching its third birthday, DHS' intelligence shop has become a joke so old it's no longer funny.
Soon after it was created, the White House stripped it of its original mission - to be an all-source intelligence analysis shop hunting for clues of the next terrorist attack. Thus, Allen has little influence over any intelligence products but DHS' own, and little say in assigning intelligence collectors outside the department.
Rather than fight another losing battle with others in the administration, Allen appears to be tightening up his own ship, making sure the department collects, shares and analyzes intelligence to the best of its ability.
He's also adding a touch of creative repackaging by floating the notion of his product as "Homeland Security intelligence." He hopes "HSINT" could compete with the traditional INTs - human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) and others - in the minds of policymakers.
"Everyone here understands human intelligence, signals intelligence, imagery intelligence and the other INTs," Allen told the congressional panel in October. His goal, he said, "is to see that Homeland Security intelligence . . . takes its place among the other kinds of intelligence as an indispensable tool for securing the nation."
Allen's changes may or may not make DHS intelligence respectable to policymakers and intelligence colleagues. But given the state of the nation's other intelligence agencies, if he can do the things he wants to do - coordinate collection, tighten up information-sharing, improve analysis - then the odds are in his favor.