FEATURE: Intelligence reform

Nine little words in the NIE

Intelligence stories rarely get more complicated than this one. But this much is clear: Bush is the nation’s chief classification officer; he can make and unmake secrets at will. The White House says the president was briefed on the findings in the nearly 140-page report on Nov. 29, but the chief subject of that meeting was probably the question of declassification — whether to send the secret National Intelligence Estimate with its explosive first sentence to Congress and let it emerge in a slow agony of leaks over a matter of days or weeks, or to cauterize the wound and declassify the key judgments at the outset, hoping the argument would quickly burn itself out?

One of the basic laws of intelligence is that no big secret can be kept that can be written on the back of an envelope. No matter who first suggested declassification, it was the president who ultimately decided to release the nine words that reversed the conclusion of a previous intelligence assessment on Iran’s bomb program in 2005, and he did it because it was going to come out anyway.

One thing we know, from the document and from the fact of its declassification, is that reform of the intelligence community has apparently worked. The creation of Mike McConnell’s job as director of national intelligence has successfully insulated the CIA from pressure by the White House of the sort that played such a big role in the Iraq WMD fiasco. To call the new NIE “inconvenient” is simply another way of saying that it is not politicized. It is free from influence by policymakers. It represents the honest conclusion of the analysts given the job of deciding whether Tehran was trying to build a bomb. The fact that the NIE says what it says, and its release, both show that the White House has lost control over American intelligence. This good news probably needs a lot of hedging and qualification, but it is good all the same. [complete article]

Revisiting intelligence reform

As the Bush administration winds up nearly seven years of intelligence fiascos, a quiet revolution has been going on at the Pentagon, which controls more than 80% of America’s $60 billion intelligence budget. Since taking over from Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in winter 2006, Robert Gates has greatly scaled down the Pentagon’s footprint on national security policy and intelligence. Working closely with Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Michael McConnell, he has slowly begun to assert civilian control over the key spy agencies funded by the defense budget and halted the Pentagon’s efforts to create its own intelligence apparatus independent of the CIA. The recent intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in contradicting early administration assertions, is perhaps the most significant sign of this newly won independence.

Those are significant actions. Under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon had become the dominant force in U.S. intelligence, with vast new powers in human intelligence and counterterrorism, both at home and abroad. By 2005, it was deploying secret commando units on clandestine missions in countries as far afield as the Philippines and Ecuador, sometimes without consulting with the local U.S. ambassadors and CIA station chiefs. At some point, President George W. Bush and his national security team apparently decided that the genie had to be put in the bottle, and sent Gates – a former CIA director who had worked closely with Vice President Dick Cheney during the first Bush administration – to put the kibosh on Rumsfeld’s private intelligence army.

But these efforts by Gates and McConnell to demilitarize U.S. Intelligence will never succeed until Congress, with the support of the next administration, removes the three national collection agencies – the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – from the Pentagon’s command-and-control system and places them directly, like the CIA, under the control of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). [complete article]

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