Unintelligent Design

Unintelligent Design

Mini Teaser: In the wake of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Americans cried out for catharsis. The 9/11 Commission delivered. What we are left with is an ill-conceived bureacracy in the guise of reform.

by Author(s): Paul R. Pillar

The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board recently weighed in with a different idea having a similar objective, which was for the ODNI to turn certain functions over to other agencies in the community—such as giving the CIA the job of evaluating security at overseas installations and having the DIA run the National Intelligence University—in the interest of enabling the DNI “to focus on strategic missions.” This would help to achieve the objective of leanness, if not meanness, in the ODNI. The functions are so secondary, however, that it is hard to believe that they, unlike the morning-briefing duty, constitute much of a diversion of the DNI’s time and attention. Moreover, they would hive off work in some of the very areas, such as common security and training standards, where the ODNI probably has done some good.

Most talk about making the job of the DNI more doable has centered on increasing the position’s statutory authority, including over personnel and budgets. A congressional fix along these lines might undo the one imprint that Congress placed on the 9/11 Commission’s plan, which it otherwise largely rubber-stamped: to ensure that the legislation of 2004 did not significantly curtail any control by the Department of Defense over its intelligence components. Every extra bit of legal authority would help any DNI, of course. But not much more authority could be granted without bumping up against legitimate issues of departmental cohesion and the jurisdiction of cabinet secretaries. This is not just a matter of congressional resistance and political realities. It is a matter of retaining a semblance of order and rationality in the larger organization chart of the executive branch. To try to turn the inherently messy, crosscutting intelligence community into something more like a unified entity under a single commander would do violence to that goal.

HERE’S THE best idea: do nothing—for now. Although this advice may seem contrary to the judgment that creating the DNI was a mistake, it reflects three other important truths.

One is that whether an initiative was a good idea in the first place is different from how to handle a problem that is in our laps now. In that respect the question of what to do about the DNI is similar to the issue of what to do about ill-considered wars. Acknowledgement that launching a war was a mistake is not the same as an argument that we ought to withdraw from it immediately. Likewise, recognition that a previous reorganization was not well thought-out does not constitute a case for rescinding it now. We cannot turn back the clock and undo past mistakes; we can only limit additional damage.

A second truth is that no amount of fixing can overcome the inherent challenges that underlie intelligence failures. No reorganization will eliminate the tenacity with which determined adversaries safeguard secrets or the impossibility of reliably forecasting foreign decisions yet to be made. No amount of bureaucratic engineering will enable intelligence services to achieve the omniscience that Americans so often seem to expect of them. It is natural, but unwarranted, to think that the next fix we make will be better than all the solutions that came before.

The third truth applies to any thought of another reorganization to correct the flaws of the last one. Shuffling authority always entails substantial costs in the form of disruption. These include everything from officers having to find out new telephone numbers of contacts in other components to superiors and subordinates who are thrown together for the first time having to develop new working relationships. For any reorganization to be warranted it has to offer substantial gross improvement, so that when the costs of disruption are factored in, it is still a net gain. That standard is difficult to meet, and much “reform” does not meet it.

Officers in the intelligence community are more adaptable than the common image of hidebound bureaucrats suggests. Many of them have had to adapt to previous reorganizations, and over the past five years they have been adjusting to the reforms that created the DNI. They have been implementing the kinds of practical, incremental adjustments that are better at making a flawed apparatus work than would any new scheme that is conceived a priori and imposed on them from the outside. Let them get on with their work.

THE POST of DNI will continue to be a mostly frustrating and thankless job. But the current framework, despite its major faults, still can be used to add value, as the ODNI already has in a few areas, mostly involving technical and supporting functions. Promoting interoperability of information technology is perhaps the best example.

There inevitably will be—regardless of what kind of bureaucratic apparatus is in place—additional intelligence failures, including ones deemed major enough to cause uproar. It also is inescapable that part of that uproar will be politically irresistible demands to overhaul U.S. intelligence. In other words, there will be more iterations of the endless cycle of recrimination and reform that has been going on for decades. The next phase—when a new reorganization, despite the costs of disruption, probably will be unavoidable—will be the occasion for trying to repair some of the damage of the last escapade. At that time reformers can consider whether to attempt a thorough consolidation of intelligence functions into a single national-intelligence service. Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) proposed such a consolidation when he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, but his proposal never received the attention it deserved because the 9/11 Commission’s plan came to monopolize the reformist playing field. Other options would be to return to a DCI system, or possibly something else. The most important thing will be to subject whatever ideas gain traction to the kind of careful scrutiny that never happened with those of the 9/11 Commission.

In the meantime, the existing intelligence-community apparatus can serve as a monument to the costs of catharsis. Let its difficulties remind us of what can happen when, as in the aftermath of 9/11, we want to be reassured more than we want to be right.

Paul R. Pillar is director of graduate studies at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and a former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.

Image: Pullquote: In short, the 9/11 Commission presented its findings amid the worst possible environment for carefully examining them. It was an environment of passion and politics, not careful judgment.Essay Types: Essay