"Meaningful Reform of the US Intelligence Community"

Alan Taylor

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 2010)





Note: This article uses in-text citations; full references are provided at the end of the article.

Historical Background

In the post 9/11 world, the United States faces a diverse collection of threats that rose to fill the void left by the global-scale threats of the Soviet era.  Such smaller, more numerous threats have tested the capacities and culture of the United States intelligence agencies and made it clear that adaptations are necessary to stay a step ahead of our enemies.  The Cold War posture held by the members of the intelligence community prepared them to face a host of state-sponsored threats, conventional warfare, nuclear weapons proliferation, and large-scale conflicts-- but left them ill-equipped to confront the smaller decentralized threats.  It is imperative, now more than ever, to facilitate effective and swift collaboration among members of the intelligence community, by incentivizing collaboration through an interface that utilizes cutting edge-technology, and implementing a formalized, structured analysis process that decreases the probability of discounting critical information.

The Impetus for Change

Any meaningful reform measures that could be taken should take into account the history of how the intelligence community has become what it is today.  In the past 20 years, the intelligence community has undertaken a number of evolutionary changes, attempting to adapt the changing needs of the world in which it must operate.  In that span of time, the principal threat of the Cold War has disappeared, and terrorism has taken the place of preeminence among the threats that the intelligence community is tasked with mitigating. Continuing efforts to adapt to these growing threats have revealed shortcomings not only in each individual member of the intelligence community, but more alarmingly in their lack of cohesion as a community.  The stubborn refusal of the branches of the armed services to cooperate led to the creation of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, and it could be said that the perceived lack of cohesion among members of the intelligence community was the impetus for the reforms that were put in place in the years following 9/11.  Operation Eagle Claw (which was an attempt to rescue the American Embassy staff held prisoner in Iran), was akin to 9/11 for the intelligence community, in that both were taken to be indicators that reforms were urgently needed in both cases.  The intelligence community has met with similar difficulties in fomenting willing collaboration among its members as did the branches of the armed services prior to the Goldwater-Nichols Act. 

Current US Policy

Ambiguous authority, and overlapping jurisdiction

The inception of the Central Intelligence Agency as part of the National Security Act of 1947, and its charter as intelligence community ring-leader, was a step in the right direction; the CIA was given the charge of acting as a central repository for intelligence collected and produced by the individual members of the community, and its Director was given supervisory authority over the other agencies in the community. Despite the authority that was given to the Director of Central Intelligence -- who had the responsibility of coordinating and directing the intelligence community at large in addition to the Central Intelligence Agency itself -- his jurisdiction overlapped with the Defense Department, the State Department, and the FBI, among others.  As Richard Betts noted shortly after the occurrence of 9/11, and during the time when policy makers were still ruminating over reform measures:

The position of DCI was meant to centralize oversight of the dispersed intelligence activities of the military services, the State Department, and the new Central Intelligence Agency, and to coordinate planning and resource allocation among them. The DCI'S ability to do so increased at times, but it was always limited by the authority of the secretary of defense over the Pentagon's intelligence agencies.  (Betts, 2002, 55)
The source of the ‘failure of the intelligence’ could not be laid at the feet of the DCI alone, given that his authority did not include the most important controls in a bureaucracy: budgetary decisions, and hiring and firing of personnel. Even if he had exercised the full extent of his authority to coordinate the efforts of the entire 16-member crew of the intelligence community, he still lacked the authority needed to replace individuals who were not willing to play as a team, and withdraw funding from those programs which were not contributing to the mission of the intelligence community as set by the DCI.  Ironically, the Secretary of Defense has more control in this regard than the Director of Central Intelligence did -- nearly 80% of the members of the intelligence community report to the Secretary of Defense, who controls not only their budget, but has the final word in the hiring and firing of the directors of those agencies.  From the start, the Director of Central Intelligence had no truly effective tools at his disposal with which to direct the efforts of the intelligence community at large.  Enter the reform legislation of 2004, now known as IRTPA, which created a provision for the establishment of the Directorate of National Intelligence (designed to supersede the position and augment the authority of the DCI), and the National Counter-Terrorism Center-- the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004.

Handed down from a blind guide

In a sense, IRTPA was two steps forward, and one step back. As Arthur Hulnick claimed, IRTPA was “…a seriously flawed document that paid lip service to the demands of intelligence reform, but it was mangled by conservatives in Congress and ignored by the White House during legislative negotiations.” (Hulnick, 2008, 622) With the creation of the Directorate of National Intelligence in 2005, the DNI (which supplanted the DCI) was given access to some of the controls which should have been given to the Director of Central Intelligence in the National Security Act of 1947, it also added another layer of red tape through which intelligence products had to travel before they could be delivered to policy makers.  Though the DNI was charged with creating a unified mission for the members of the intelligence community, it still was given only marginally more control over the budget, and personnel management of each of the agencies in its jurisdiction.  In essence, IRTPA failed to effectively resolve the organizational impediments to making a truly cohesive community of intelligence gathering, analysis, and dissemination.  Arguably, IRTPA did not produce what law-makers had hoped because it failed to take into account the input from the members of the intelligence community which the 9/11 commission discredited.  Policymakers alone are not well enough equipped to determine what needs fixing in the intelligence community.  As Gibson warned in 2005, “The damage done to intelligence by association with bad governance will surely prompt one of three responses for the intelligence function: no change; fundamental change to reflect contemporary society; something in between.”  (Gibson, 2005, 29)  The product of reforms which emanate from a body that is sequestered from the entity which it is trying to improve, compounded by exposure to rashly-considered agendas of each reelection-minded lawmaker, will sure fail to deliver the needed adaptations which brought about failures in the first place.  This failure, especially in the wake of  the reforms of 2004, are evident in the recent examples of the ‘Christmas Bomber’, and the Times Square incident of May 2, 2010.

Curative treatment, not just symptomatic relief

Future reforms will need to confront the most prominent of the problematic areas which continue to plague the intelligence community, and bog down the production and timely dissemination of intelligence products.  First among these, is the capacity of the coordinating force behind the intelligence community to establish a clear mission and objectives for all members of the intelligence community. Implicit with this authority is the ability to enforce that decision with budgetary measures, and making changes in the directing staff of each agency when needed. This would need to include all those members of the intelligence community which currently answer to the Secretary of Defense.  As it currently stands, the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Energy share jurisdiction over respective members of the intelligence community - with nearly 4 out of 5 of them under the Secretary of Defense.  As long as the responsibility for these agencies remains decentralized, it is fair to assume that the unified mission that the DNI was designed to impose will remain elusive.  Resolving disputes over jurisdiction is not, however, easy to accomplish when there is no compelling urgency (such as the crisis presented by 9/11) to ‘shake things up.’  Although the DNI was established as a curative measure for organizational ills, rather than facilitating the flow of information in the community, and rectifying the fundamental organizational flaws, the DNI has essentially become a vaguely more authoritative target for blame. This is evident in the publicity surrounding the resignation of Dennis Blair from the position of DNI following brief a tenure of just over a year, during which the Christmas Bomber, and Times Square Bomber incidents took place. In the wake of these two incidents, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued another report, condemning the recurrence of intelligence failures in the Community, despite Blair’s efforts to the contrary.

The dilemma of the DNI is intractable in nature and yet, delaying reforms until another catastrophic failure of intelligence were to occur would be to waste valuable time, resources, personnel, and risk the unthinkable. Even in the event of a crisis of similar or greater magnitude, it is not likely that the resulting evolution of the intelligence community will be able to entirely sweep aside the flawed elements of the bureaucracy which currently govern it.  If jurisdiction remains decentralized, along with its respective budgetary controls, effective top-down budgetary controls are likely out of the question. Fortunately for the intelligence community (and those whom they serve and protect), a crisis is not necessary in order for some less obtrusive, yet just as effective, adaptations to take place. 

Whatever the ‘intelligence failure’ of 9/11 may be blamed on, it is clear that the intelligence community was not blindsided by the threats that made September 11th synonymous with terrorism.  In the investigations that ensued, records indicated that members of the intelligence community, including the Director of Central Intelligence, were well aware of Osama bin Laden, and were moving to counter the threat al-Qaeda presented. George Tenet, then holding the position of DCI, wrote a memo to members of the intelligence committee in December of 1998, which stated the following: “We must now enter a new phase in our effort against Bin Ladin. . . . We are at war . . . I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the Community.” (Zegart, 2005, 83)  Without a doubt, they had access to useful intelligence about the terrorist threats that were extant at the time.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Current US Policy

If awareness of the threat wasn’t the source of the failure, then some other part of the intelligence cycle must have broken down.  It’s clear enough that they were able to collect enough information about bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but were not able to anticipate the time and location of the attacks of September 11th.  Either in the collection process, or the analysis phase the intelligence cycle hit a snag - the critical information of ‘when and where’ was not unearthed in time to prevent the attacks.  Analysts across the entire community were not able to discover, amid the piles of information available to them, the sudden alteration of the status quo that the terrorist attacks brought.

Knee-jerk reactions

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, policy makers clamored for ‘changes’ in the intelligence community.  However, as Zegart pointed out in 2005 regarding the intelligence failure:

Change…is not the same as adaptation. As sociologists have long pointed out, organizations are always changing. The key issue is whether those changes matter, or more precisely, whether the rate of change within an organization keeps pace (or lags behind) the rate of change in its external environment. (Zegart, 2005, 82)
Rather than simply seeking for change, reforms should aim to produce adaptations which will equip the agencies in question to avoid the same sorts of ‘failure’ of which they were repeatedly accused after 9/11.  Claims of intelligence failure will not magically disappear in the wake of a reform.  After all, as John Hedley pointed out, “…allegations of intelligence failure are a ‘given,’ if for no other reason than the fact that politicians and public servants abhor being caught off guard.” (Hedley, 2005, 436) Whether labeled ‘change’ or ‘adaptation,’ reforms are likely to meet with stiff resistance in implementation, due to the bureaucratic nature of the organization they are designed to improve.

Overcoming Max Weber’s “Iron Cage”...

The bureaucratic framework of each of the agencies in the intelligence community often acts as an inertial force that resists changes.  The crisis of 9/11 proved to have enough momentum to overcome the inertial forces of bureaucracy to push through a few changes in the years following, but the resulting reforms were not the panacea that policy makers hoped they would be.  The families of 9/11 victims, the legislators whose constituents were affected, and those who hold policymaking positions in the legislature that were specially concerned with intelligence matters all had vested interests in ‘fixing’ the intelligence community. Barring the occurrence of another crisis of the same magnitude (which, as we’ve seen, has produced hastily-crafted, less-effective legislative reforms), intelligence community officials should look to other methods of introducing needed adaptations.  Instead of seeking to implement reform from the top down, it’s time to look for solutions that come from the bottom and work their way up based on merit.  As difficult as it may be to encourage this sort of grass-roots mentality in a bureaucracy, one advance in this arena has shown remarkable promise: the advent of Intellipedia.

Policy Recommendations

Communication at the speed of … bureaucracy?

The advances in information technology have ushered in an era of rapid (indeed, often instantaneous) communication - making it possible for organizations to perceive and respond to a changing environment as quickly as information can travel. The ramifications of this capability for the intelligence community are broad, but implementation of this capacity among members of the intelligence community is far from optimal. The greatest benefits of maintaining a system of rapid communication (both inter-, and intra-agency) will be realized in the innovation-friendly environment it will create. With adaptations to changing external requirements, one can expect some growing pains to accompany them - including some foul-ups that may continue to be labeled ‘intelligence failures.’ As Betts noted, “The current crisis presents the opportunity to override entrenched and outdated interests, to crack heads and force the sorts of consolidation and cooperation that have been inhibited by bureaucratic constipation. On balance, reorganization will help--but at a price: mistakes will increase, too.” (Betts, 2002, 52) 

While mistakes may seem unacceptable when discussing the side-effects of reform, it should also be noted that under no circumstances would it be reasonable to expect flawless performance from a community that is tasked with global threat detection and mitigation.  In the wake of his resignation, Dennis Blair evinced his frustration with the challenges faced by the DNI the intelligence community is “aggressively focused on potential threats" but "institutional and technological barriers remain." (Washington Post, 21 May 2010)  Countenancing errors may prove to be less of a relapse, and more a necessary element of the evolution of the intelligence community, as it strives to make necessary adaptations.

Side-stepping the red-tape

One assumption that should be done away with in order for the bureaucratic nature of the intelligence community to shed its paralytic reaction to change and adaptation, is that innovation must originate from senior levels of the community. Dr. Calvin Andrus, who has retrospectively been credited with inspiring the development and implementation of the information-sharing network now in use by the intelligence community (and is, interestingly, a member of the LDS Church), highlighted the importance of fostering an environment where changes can originate from any level in the community.  In 2005 he wrote:

Much of the self-corrective knowledge in the Intelligence Community resides in personal points of view. Currently, almost no official outlet exists for points of view in the IC. A healthy market of debatable ideas emerges from the sharing of points of view. From the ideas that prosper in a market will arise the adaptive behaviors the Intelligence Community must adopt in order to respond to the changing national security environment. Not all good ideas originate at the top. (Andrus, 2005, 65)
Andrus’ call for an open exchange of ideas would allow anyone in the intelligence community with access to the network to publish their own personal views about methods, practices, policies, and accuracy of intelligence products - all without having to seek the approval of a supervisor or section chief.  Such a marketplace of ideas may be deemed as a threat to the status quo; and so it is.  However, those opposed to such an open-ended flow of ideas should also realize that the preservation of the status quo represents a danger to the entire intelligence community, precisely because it compels individuals to resist change even while their environment changes around them.  It was this sort of thinking that caused analysts to dismiss the vital clues of ‘when and where’ for the attacks on September 11th, 2001.  Continuing to operate in such a rigid manner will quash any effective reform before it even gets off the ground; as Richard Betts noted -
…expertise can get in the way of anticipating a radical departure from the norm, because the depth of expert knowledge of why and how things have gone as they have day after day for years naturally inclines the analyst to estimate that developments will continue along the same trajectory. It is always a safer bet to predict that the situation tomorrow will be like it has been for the past dozen years than to say that it will change abruptly. (Betts, 2002, 49)
The good news is, the technology is already in place to make information-sharing an integral part of the way that the intelligence community gathers, analyzes, and disseminates intelligence.  In lieu of attempting to perform a massive organizational shift of the leviathan intelligence community, this network allows for individuals to circumvent the chain of command in order to air their ideas for innovation and adaptation.  The drawback to the existence of such a venue, of course, is that the bad ideas will intermingle with good ones -- there will be no senior staff to vet the contributions before they are circulated.  Dr. Andrus admits that the creation of such a marketplace of ideas “...may be one of the largest paradigm shifts ever for the IC. It will be uncomfortable for some because it will be in the blogosphere where the Community will ride along the edge of chaos,” but also that, “…for every 99 mediocre ideas, there will likely only be one brilliant idea.  A few brilliant ideas… are worth the investment of many mediocre (and chaotic) ones. It is these few brilliant ideas that will provide the direction for the Community to adapt to the changing national security environment.” (Andrus, 2005, 67) 

Such a network would be much more cost effective than trying to effect a large-scale organizational coup, such as placing all intelligence community members under the sole authority of the DNI.  Simply making this interaction possible will not be enough, however.   Not long after his work was published, an information sharing network (known as Intellipedia) styled after Wikipedia.org was created to facilitate collaboration and the exchange of ideas among the members of the intelligence community.  While it has gained some notoriety among individuals in the community, participation is still optional, and little formal recognition is afforded to those who make valuable contributions.   To see this marketplace of ideas reach its full potential as a fountain of ideas for adaptation, the individuals who could contribute the most to the project will likely need a tangible incentive to do so.

As it stands right now, efforts expended by the personnel in the intelligence community to update old information, create new information, and collaborate with those in other agencies will only be reflected as an extra-curricular activity.  It currently plays no part in the Performance Annual Review (which evaluates the work of each individual in each agency) even if the effort they expended in updating their wiki page, blog, or other such page in the network was regarded as a landmark contribution to the corporate knowledge base of the intelligence community.  If their contributions, for better or for worse, to the knowledge-base that Intellipedia encompasses were to become part of their PAR, then not only could their valuable contributions be given formal recognition (even financial bonuses, where exceptionally meritorious work is produced), and become a consideration when deciding which personnel to promote, but it would also be the source of a tremendous incentive for each individual to start making valuable inter-agency contributions.   

Divide, share, and conquer

The facilitation of interconnectivity between different agencies in the intelligence community via Intellipedia has ramifications not only for the US Intelligence Corp, but internationally as well.  Despite the gargantuan budget of the Defense Department at the intelligence community at large, it is not reasonable to assume that the assets at our disposal could provide effective threat-detection coverage over every region of the world.  Paradoxically, where we need that coverage the most, we have the least ability to extend it: the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.  It’s not enough just to move in assets in the aftermath of a crisis, given that the goal of the intelligence community is prevention, rather than retaliation.  Regarding the relatively sparse coverage that the US intelligence community had over the Middle East in the years following 9/11, Stéphane Lefebvre wrote: “Given its human intelligence weaknesses in regions such as the Middle East and Central Asia, the United States has no choice but to work with friendly indigenous intelligence agencies.” (Lefebvre, 2003, 529)  Despite our desire to do so, we cannot be everywhere at once - which makes the ability to connect with allied intelligence sources through a ubiquitous network all the more appealing.  Where we find it difficult to place intelligence assets, perhaps (collectively) our allies will find it easier.  However, as is born out in Lefebvre’s work, international collaborative intelligence efforts are not a new idea - and past initiatives in this area have had mixed results. 

The weakest link, on a global scale

Perhaps the chief concern in opening Intellipedia, or something like it, to international collaboration is “…the fear that the intelligence exchanged, or knowledge acquired, through the relationship will be compromised or passed on to a third party without the originator’s consent” and that “…the intelligence exchanged through a liaison relationship could potentially be used for unintended purposes.” (Lefebvre, 2003, 535)  Unfortunately there is no shortage of historical examples of such incidents - Kim Philby, and A. Q. Khan being two notable examples.   Being able to cut through bureaucratic red tape in collaborating with international intelligence agencies through an interface like Intellipedia has much to offer in the way of preventing vital intelligence from slipping through the cracks in the respective coverage of each.  However, given the increased risk of a leak that such information-sharing entails, intelligence organizations both within the US and around the globe would likely limit the information they share to the narrow spectrum where the benefits of sharing outweigh the risk of that information being compromised -- especially in light of recent successful cyber attacks on the Indian Defense Ministry, where hackers were able to pilfer classified information stored on a secure network. (New York Times, April 5, 2010). Sanitizing the information as a protective measure would defeat the purpose of having an internationally-sanctioned information-sharing network.

Getting the Basics right

More important than the ability to share information, however, is the knowledge of what to do with it after it has been collected, and before it is disseminated.  As previously discussed, the source of the 9/11 intelligence failure was not found to be any dearth of information, but rather in the failure to recognize the most vital parts of the information that was obtained - to (figuratively) separate the grain from the chaff.   As Stephen Marrin wrote recently:

The literature on intelligence analysis frequently observes that analysis proceeds at a frenetic pace, with information coming at analysts as if they were figuratively drinking water from a fire hose. In addition, a frequent critique of the analytic process is that it tends to emphasize short-term analytic reporting, known as current intelligence, over longer analytic reports. This focus on current intelligence has significantly eroded analysts’ ability to acquire topical expertise because longer research reports are a primary means for an analyst to learn more about a particular issue.” (Marrin, 2009, 133)
While acknowledging that expertise can sometimes lead to a routine of analysis that can serve to preserve the status quo, it is also widely conceded that expertise is necessary in order to give context to what is happening in the here and now.  Expertise need not be eliminated in order for effective analysis to occur - rather a new approach to analyzing current events while maintaining a collective expertise is called for.  While expertise may encompass the conventional wisdom on a given topic or account, frequent exposure to a non-biased, formally structured analysis will prevent the conventional wisdom from becoming too conventional.   Speaking of a proposed method of training incumbent and newly-minted analytical staff, Marrin remarked, “Analysts only infrequently have the opportunity to think deeply and carefully about the issues they are addressing. They therefore find various kinds of sabbaticals—such as rotation to a staff job or the opportunity to pursue graduate education fulltime—to be conceptually refreshing.” (Marrin, 2009, 134)  In some ways, a structured format of analysis (which takes into account the conventional wisdom while preventing bias that would perpetuate the status quo) has already seen implementation through training within each agency.  Of this training, Marrin wrote:
“While the individual members of the U.S. Intelligence Community have been creating analytic training centers, they have also begun to devote more attention to the teaching and application of structured analytic techniques such as Analysis of Competing Hypotheses, brainstorming, key assumptions check, red cell analysis, devil’s advocacy, Team A=Team B, alternative futures, and others. In contrast to the old way of doing analysis, which involved reading a lot and coming to a judgment about the issue, based on the individual analyst’s expertise, the new way of doing analysis involves the application of structured techniques, which are more amenable to formal instruction. (Marrin, 2009, 133)
While neither formal training or increased inter-agency collaboration through Intellipedia (along with a system of incentives for engaging in both) will produce a flawless performance from the intelligence community, it will produce a marked improvement relative to the recent past.  One reason for this, is that it is designed to carry forward the worthwhile elements of analysis from past experience - where in the past, this was done only informally at best.  Marrin points out a few of the weak points of an informal tradition of analysis-instruction:
Until now, intelligence analysis has been managed largely as a craft rather than as a profession. Because of this, intelligence analysis has neither well defined systemic formal knowledge—such as a coherent doctrine or theory—nor standards that are formulated or enforced by other members of the profession. Knowledge regarding intelligence analysis methods has not been cumulative, and the various attempts to improve organizational performance have remained isolated from other efforts. (Marrin, 2009, 139).

The marriage of both a formalized training which encourages objective analysis of available data, and a democratized network where anyone in the intelligence community can engage in inter-agency collaboration will serve not only to improve the current ability of intelligence production, it will also integrate a framework which will keep the entire community abreast of the changes that will inevitably occur in the future.  At the very least, it will curb the occurrence of human error, which have been blamed for the intelligence failures in the past year.  While this may seem cynical, the mandate of a crisis makes it easier to introduce larger-scale organizational changes. For the interim, it may be easier to initiate changes from the ground up through wiki-type interfaces like Intellipedia, and through training analysts in structural analysis which makes it harder for the community at large to be caught by surprise when there is a change to the status quo.

As always, with evaluating the effectiveness of reformative measures in the intelligence community, it is not reasonable to expect a failure-free track record.  No matter what resources are thrown at the problem, it will likely never attain perfection at preventing the occasional disaster from occurring.  Rather than trying to achieve a perfect ‘batting-average’ (Betts, 2002), or waiting for a disaster to create a mandate for sweeping change, realize that perfection is not practical, and look for alternatives to organizational change that will decrease the slope of the learning curve, and build a more unified intelligence community from the ground up. 


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Full Citation for This Article: Taylor, Alan (2010) "Meaningful Reform of the US Intelligence Community," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleTaylorIntelligenceCommunity.html, accessed [give access date].

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