Reforming National Intelligence

The resignation of DCI Tenet should intensify the quest for radical reforms of our national intelligence community (IC).

The resignation of DCI Tenet should intensify the quest for radical reforms of our national intelligence community (IC).  In that quest, the President, Congressional leaders and other authorities should embrace five extremely important propositions:

1. Radical reforms and improvements in the performance of the national IC are needed and available.

During the 1990s, an accumulation of pathologies and neglected opportunities allowed large gaps to emerge between overall IC performance and the requirements of the global situation and activist policies for facing them, especially on terrorism, proliferation, key regions and countries.  This was the fault of many things, from aging institutions to a country and an administration that long did not perceive real national security threats.  9/11, the Iraq WMD fiasco, Iran, Korea and other crises have jolted our perceptions; but other pathologies remain.

2.  The needed improvements will come, not from one sweeping structural change, but from many reforms and initiatives on many fronts.

In the 1950s, we faced a comparable gap between intelligence performance and the requirements of one big challenge:  sizing and tracking the Soviet military.  We closed that gap with (to oversimplify a lot) one big fix:  satellites.  This time around, we're going to have to fix many things at once.  Some of them are "hard" or quantifiable, such as assuring budgets and personnel rosters robust enough to cover the great multiplicity of equally competing priorities.  Some are "softer" or more cultural, but extremely important, such as reducing the tyranny of current intelligence (including the CIA's fetish about the PDB) in favor of much more deep analysis; enhancing the role of science and scientists in all aspects of IC affairs; making Congressional oversight more muscular, but less costly.  The need for better HUMINT has become a banality.  Meeting it will require innovations in operations and technology, not just more of the old familiar.  Better analysis requires jacking up professional standards of critical thinking, but also new information technologies to enable analysts to find dots (especially in open sources), to connect them and to connect with each other.

3.  The federated structure or "constitution" of our national intelligence community is sound and must be respected. 

This federated structure is now unwisely maligned.  It is in fact better suited to the diversity of the 21st Century situation than it was to the Cold War.  Creating a "czar" (or Director of National Intelligence) and giving him or her control over the NSA, NRO and NGA, not to mention the departmental intelligence components, is unnecessary and would spill so much bureaucratic blood on the floor as to be counterproductive.  Our intelligence federation has 1) a senior, cabinet-level intelligence leader who reports directly to the President in the DCI; 2) the CIA which the DCI runs directly and which has a hand in almost every intelligence task, including support to the military; 3)  in the IC, a family of intelligence agencies which support both the IC as a whole and the special needs of the departments in which they are lodged.  This system is flexible and adaptable if appreciated properly.  The DCI has adequate power to reform and run the IC if he has the support of the President, a good relationship with the Secretaries of Defense and State (which he'd need no matter what his formal powers), a critical grasp of the IC's problems and a vision for reform.  The one big structural innovation that warrants serious consideration is the creation of a new domestic intelligence/counterintelligence service.  But building this within the FBI and Justice is probably easier, better and safer.

4.  The next DCI should be a seasoned executive leader with a capacity for vision and an ability to change the behavior of entrenched organizations and clans. 

He doesn't have to know more about official intelligence than most literate citizens; he can learn all that.  But he must understand the dynamics of the information age and could come from the IT, telecom, financial or military sector.  He or she must absolutely NOT be a politician.  Our politicians are, sadly for our public life, attuned to a world dominated by slogans and illusions have no place in intelligence.

5.  Finally, while many good ideas will come from the outside, a great many can and will come from the inside.

Many serving intelligence professionals, including very senior ones, are not in denial about the failures of the past and the need for major reforms.  They must and can be a big part of the solution if liberated by visionary leadership. 

A growing informal movement of insiders and outsiders is already working on a concrete agenda for intelligence reform, largely in tune with the principles above.  Soon we shall be ready for prime time.


Fritz W. Ermarth served 25 years at the CIA and was Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, 1988-1993.  He is currently Director of National Security Programs at The Nixon Center.