The Magazine

Privatize the CIA

Our intelligence community could use more -competition.

Feb 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 20 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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Twice this past week, on January 23 and 25, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held hearings on intelligence reform. Topics included the remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations and efforts both to facilitate information-sharing across the U.S. government's 16 intelligence agencies and to increase the number of operatives and linguists.

The committee's schedule suggests Sen. Jay Rockefeller will use his new majority status and chairmanship to increase oversight and press the Bush administration on matters ranging from CIA rendition programs to the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance programs. Oversight should be welcome, but neither it nor the 9/11 Commission's recommendations will be enough to rectify the quality of U.S. intelligence analysis.

In a seminal article in the Economist in 1955, historian C. Northcote Parkinson described the behavior of bureaucracies. First, he observed, any "official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and [second,] officials make work for each other." He used the British admiralty to illustrate his case. Between 1914 and 1928, its commissioned ships declined two-thirds. Over the same period of time, the number of officials managing them almost doubled.

As John Negroponte prepares to move from the directorship of National Intelligence to Foggy Bottom, it is clear that his legacy falls far short of real reform. He hired 1,500 employees for his new office, but missed recruitment targets for both operatives and analysts.

This is failure. As both the Iranian nuclear drive and al Qaeda's declared war on the United States continue, the nation needs spies to peer where satellites cannot and men on the ground to hear conversations that take place in caves rather than on cell phones. The failure to recruit and retain quality linguists is also a scandal. While Rockefeller criticizes wiretap procedures, the true outrage is the failure of the intelligence and law enforcement communities to put the products of such surveillance to use. On July 27, 2005, Glenn Fine, inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Federal Bureau of Investigation backlog of counterterrorism and counterintelligence audio surveillance awaiting translation had grown from almost 25,000 hours on December 31, 2003, to more than 38,000 hours on March 31, 2005. Department of Justice sources say the problem has not diminished.

While the number of spies and linguists may be a critical metric for gauging U.S. capabilities, access to raw material does not itself correlate with quality analysis. Here, the intelligence community falls short. Take Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department analyst to whom the CIA awarded two Exceptional Performance commendations. On July 10, 2001, Johnson penned a New York Times op-ed entitled "The Declining Terrorist Threat." As Mohamed Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers conducted dry runs for their attack, and despite Osama bin Laden's 1998 declaration of war on the United States, Johnson argued that Americans were not primary targets of terrorism. He blamed concern about Islamist terrorism on "24-hour broadcast news operations too eager to find a dramatic story line."

While Johnson is just one public example, the poor quality of the CIA's analytical products is an open secret among intelligence consumers. Reports circulated to the State Department, Pentagon, Treasury Department, National Security Council, and the White House are seldom more analytical or detailed than published newspaper accounts.

The reasons for poor analysis are multifold. The initial premise of a closed analytical shop segregated from policy was to maintain a bank of first-rate social scientists to prevent surprise and predict events. But social science has never lived up to its promise. The Soviet Union's collapse and 9/11 are just two prominent instances of the CIA's failure to predict. While it has become fashionable to scapegoat Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi for faulty intelligence about Iraqi weapons, and thereby exculpate the CIA's perhaps $30 billion intelligence operation, the preponderance of Langley's analysis suggested Iraq was permeated with chemical and biological munitions.

Nor did Langley ever attract top academics. Many specialists shy away from government careers. In practice--unbelievable as it may seem--travel and regional experience disqualify applicants during the security clearance process. Those with native fluency in languages like Arabic, Persian, or Pashtun seldom pass CIA vetting. While Langley recruits Mormons returning from missions with linguistic ability, most intelligence hires are book smart but experience poor.