Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year Resolutions

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

Like many Americans, I am a fan of New Year Resolutions. A personal plan of action is always a good thing, even if it is not completely realized by the end of the year. The Intelligence Community (IC) could use a few New Year Resolutions as well. There are many positive developments that can and should be built upon. There are some problems as well that are lurking and will likely be points of discussion and controversy in 2006.

Leadership

The standing up of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the getting down to work by John Negroponte, General Michael Hayden and the staff is a significant achievement. Their progress has been slow, but the task is enormous. They must dismantle piece by piece and construct anew not just the skeleton but the soft tissue of the IC as well. The entire process of how intelligence flows through the IC is being changed, arguably for the better. We are still not beyond the possibility that the ODNI will just be another bureaucratic layer without value added. The real value, after reform, is the ODNI must be the policy hub for the IC.

Other positive develops include the positioning of Charlie Allen over at DHS. Allan is a community man who thinks strategically. This can only help DHS, which is suffering from a patchwork of agencies, missions and visions.

Stephen Cambone, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, seems to be coming into his own at the Pentagon. The word in the corridors is that his shop is the place to be if you want to be involved in threshold pushing operations. Watching the people trail is a good indicator. One of the top female CIA scientific officers recognized greener pastures in the Pentagon’s intel shop this past year, following in now well-worn tracks from the CIA to DIA and other military intel offices.

Porter Goss is floundering at the CIA, accused by the troops of politicizing intelligence and by outsiders of not using a firm enough hand. On Goss, I had adopted a wait and see approach. I liked what he was saying in terms of a new vision for the CIA. I just wanted to see him implement the changes necessary to realize the vision. I give Goss uneven grades on this front. I was extremely disappointed by Goss’ decision to not hold any CIA officer accountable for poor performance for 9/11. Goss says he took the decision because the officers in question demonstrated dedication and risk-taking after the devastating attacks on our homeland. In other words, institutional loyalty and good effort excuses poor performance.

Did Goss reach his decision with the intention of saving the CIA, an organization where I am honored to have worked for more than a decade? Or did he do it to salvage his reputation inside the walls of Langley? It is certain that giving a pass to poor performance will result in neither. Officers named in the CIA Inspector General report are those who failed to do their jobs and the ones who should be held accountable. They should not be the mentors or roll models for the next generation of spies. Indeed, eschewing accountability will only lead to the destruction of the CIA.

If Goss thinks he will win new friends and supporters by giving CIA officers a pass on poor performance, he is wrong. DCI Woolsey tried this when he decided no one should be held accountable for the Aldrich Ames spying scandal. Ames’s treachery led to the death of at least ten Soviet spies. Woolsey found himself quickly out of a job and the CIA was terribly weakened by a half-decade of political attacks and bureaucratic turf wars that followed. This time we are not talking about 10 foreign spies, but thousands of Americans slaughtered on one day.

Resolutions: Buy into the vision of a new IC that is integrated, committed to excellence, accountable for poor performance and welcoming of innovation.

Policy

2005 is the year that debate on intelligence policy started to re-emerge from the vaults. At least three factors led to this: the pending sunset of certain Patriot Act provisions, congressional reaction to Abu Ghraib abuses and leak of a sensitive NSA collection program.

The Bush Administration has a strong preference to operate in secret and to minimize debate. This has led to growing distrust of government practices and increasing demands for more transparency. Administration officials have recently acknowledged the need to permit debate on a range of topics—no doubt in reaction to the polls. The Administration, however, has resisted permitting a debate on intelligence policy, trying to mischaracterize policy as intelligence activities and therefore secret.

What are the public policy issues? Balancing civil liberties and national security; clear policies on the detention and treatment of prisoners in the global war on terrorism; and the checks and balances on executive authorities related to intelligence.

Negroponte has been conspicuously absent from some of the major policy debates. He is quoted as saying “It’s above my pay grade” when asked about exempting the CIA from the law banning torture. I find this troublesome because the chief intel officer should be the policy go-to guy. He needs to weigh in one way or another, as a voice of the IC. It is understandable that the ODNI is currently focused on process, but that is no excuse to avoid the big policy issues because policy as much as process shapes the capabilities and the overall health of the IC.

Resolutions: Return intelligence policy fully to the world of public policy and make the ODNI the focal point for representing the IC.

Performance

In 2005, there was no major terrorist attack against the US homeland despite the continuing motivation of terrorist groups to do grievous harm. US intelligence agencies continue to identify and neutralize threats, showing the war on terror is far from over.

Intelligence is a lot like war fighting. Winning a lot of skirmishes does not count much if you loose the big battles and as a consequence the war. Americans don’t know much about the IC’s success on the skirmish level, but they do know about 9/11 and Iraqi WMD. The challenges are daunting for continued success: insufficient personnel with experience, a not well-understood enemy in the global war on terrorism and insufficient resources to do everything, everywhere, all the time.

As concerned as I am about CIA capabilities, I believe the FBI is the greater problem. The FBI continues to play lip service to the call to do business in an entirely different way. The FBI does not have a strong enough handle on either counterterrorism or counterintelligence. Its knowledge base on Islamic extremism is poor and there are few efforts to improve it. The Chinese are stealing US technology and running circles around the FBI. The Parlor Maid case is just the tip of the iceberg. Only the 9/11 Commission seems to be asking hard questions about FBI performance and mission suitability—and that a day late and dollar short after giving the issue a pass when they prepared the Commission Report. My real worry is that the US will push down the road dealing with the hard issue of breaking up the FBI and creating a domestic intelligence service until faced with another colossal intelligence failure.

Resolutions: Don’t rest on the laurels of success from 2005; grapple with the unfinished business of degraded capabilities and wrong structures that negatively impact the ability of the IC to identify and pre-empt national security threats.

New Year Wishes

I believe the IC turned an important corner in 2005 on the road to recovery. Let’s be positive in encouraging the trend to continue in 2006 while being prudent about continuing problems. Despite all the controversy, ups and downs, bad press, and leaks, we should not lose sight of the people. To the men and women in the intelligence profession, I wish them success in the New Year and thank them for their service and dedication.

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