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The prestigious Brookings Institution has joined the ranks of various government and public institutions to suggest reform steps for the Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence community (IC).
Unlike previous reform proposals, the Brookings study manages to overlook the serious systemic issues that face the world of intelligence analysis and to propose a full slate of boilerplate steps. The author of the study is the well-known China scholar, Kenneth Lieberthal, who is the director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings.

Since Lieberthal was a senior director for Asia on the National Security Council and a special assistant to President Bill Clinton for national security affairs and therefore a consumer of the government’s most sensitive intelligence analysis, his study is a particular disappointment.

What the CIA should be, what it should do, and what it should prepare to do is less clear than at any time since the beginning of the Cold War.  There should have been major reform of the CIA and the IC with the end of the Cold War, but there was none. Sen. David Boren and Rep. David McCurdy, both Democrats, made attempts in 1992 and 1994 to reform the CIA, but there was great resistance from Republicans who were under the influence of the Pentagon, and there was no support from their Democratic colleagues.

The politicization of intelligence on the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the intelligence failures that contributed to the 9/11 attacks created other opportunities for reform, but the flawed thinking of the 9/11 Commission, the Congressional rush to judgment, and unwise pressures from the families of the 9/11 victims led to changes that made a bad situation worse.

The creation of a new bureaucracy under a Director of National Intelligence (DNI or the so-called intelligence tsar) beholden to the White House led to a more centralized system of intelligence that stifles creative thinking and runs the risk of more politicized intelligence. Lieberthal’s failure to critique the role of the DNI is one of the major shortcomings of his work.

The congressional, political, and academic critics outside of the intelligence community simply have no idea of the decline and despair within the CIA that has led to a major deterioration in the ability to prepare strategic intelligence and to inform the policy community. There is no consensus whatsoever on what is needed to reform the world of intelligence. The Congress is an unlikely source for conducting a reform effort; its modus operandi calls for throwing money at problems, but the needed reforms have nothing to do with additional funds.

There has never been a time in the nation’s history when so much money has been spent on intelligence with so little accountability and so few beneficial results. We learned today that the intelligence budget is $75 billion, which more than doubles the budget for the State Department and the Agency for International Development.

The serious problems that Lieberthal fails to address include the militarization of the IC, which must be reversed; the absence of congressional oversight over a flawed intelligence product that paved the way to the Iraq War, which must be ended; the ability of the National Clandestine Service to politicize intelligence analysis, which must be stopped; and the inability of CIA to tell truth to power, which finds the Agency without a moral compass.

The Bush administration boasted of a “marriage” between the Pentagon and the CIA, which indicated its support for an intelligence community subordinated to Pentagon priorities. The current intelligence tsar, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, has strengthened this marriage, which finds the Defense Department the chief operating officer of the $75 billion intelligence industry. The Pentagon controls more than 85 percent of the intelligence budget and nearly 90 percent of the 200,000 intelligence personnel.

Most collection requirements flow from the Pentagon, and deference within the policy and congressional communities for “support for the warfighter” has elevated tactical military considerations over strategic geopolitical considerations.  The Pentagon has also moved into the fields of clandestine collection and covert operations, without the constraints of oversight that limit the covert actions of the CIA.

The decline of the CIA over the past two decades coincides with the end to oversight of the IC by the Senate and House intelligence committees. These committees have become advocates for the CIA—particularly for the clandestine world of spies and covert operations. In doing so, Congress has failed to make the CIA accountable for its transgressions and has ignored the major decline in the production of strategic intelligence. It took the Senate intelligence committee more than five years to issue a report on the Bush administration’s misuse of intelligence information, and even then it merely issued a majority-only written report.

Every congressional “reform” movement on CIA has started with the need for greater clandestine collection, particularly greater assets and personnel for the National Clandestine Service, which ignores the limits and myths of clandestine collection and exaggerates the value of human intelligence. The current CIA director, Leon Panetta, has been captured by the clandestine culture and cadre, and is unlikely to lead a reform movement. It is time to separate the CIA’s directorate of intelligence from the National Clandestine Service, but Lieberthal merely notes that there “strong arguments” for and against separation. Once upon a time, we counted on “independent” studies to resolve these arguments.

Unfortunately, Lieberthal takes the easy way out with a series of thumb sucking recommendations that do not address the problem of the decline of strategic intelligence. He calls for the creation of a National Intelligence University (!) with its own campus and faculty as well as “periodic formal training opportunities.” I would expect a distinguished academic such as Lieberthal to understand the difference between education and training.

He calls for greater hiring of “people who are in their late twenties or early thirties who have had extensive experience related to the country of concern,” which ignores the need to cross-fertilize the CIA with experienced analysts from the academic and think-tank worlds who have a little more grey hair than the average 20 or 30-something and more time overseas. These senior analysts would also be able to mentor the CIA’s analytic community, which is extremely young and inexperienced.

He calls for adding another layer of review, without acknowledging the petty tutelage that already exists in the review process and without endorsing the need for protecting contrarian and out-of-the-box thinking in the analytic process. Finally, Lieberthal recommends IC briefings to incoming policy makers in order to determine how policy makers “might best be served by the IC.”

Unfortunately, the CIA already spends too much time determining the interests of the policy maker and, as a result, often skews intelligence to serve those interests.

CIA directors Richard Helms, James Schlesinger, George H.W. Bush, William Casey, Robert Gates, George Tenet, and Porter Goss were guilty of politicizing intelligence, but Lieberthal doesn’t deal with the problem. The only protections against politicization are the integrity and honesty of the intelligence analysts themselves, as well as the protection of competitive analysis that serves as a safeguard against unchallenged acceptance of conventional wisdom.

The creation of a centralized director of national intelligence and the placement of key IC positions in the hands of the military do not augur well for the restoration of CIA’s moral compass.

Originally published at:

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, is The Public Record’s National Security and Intelligence columnist. He spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA

Originally posted to Mel Goodman on Thu Sep 17, 2009 at 07:33 PM PDT.

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