The Magazine

Catfights Inside U.S. Intelligence

The struggles can be petty but the stakes are high.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By GARY SCHMITT
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Which brings us back to the original problem that provided impetus for overhauling the structure of U.S. intelligence in the wake of 9/11: the failure of agencies within the intelligence community to share information with each other and with the law enforcement community. It was a "connect-the-dots" problem with few dots being shared. But one didn't need to create an intelligence czar to fix information sharing. Creating the all-agency Counterterrorism Center and issuing new directives on what had to be shared would have been (and has been) sufficient.

But folks in Washington were bound and determined to use the attacks on 9/11 to do to the intelligence community what they had done to the Pentagon and military services with the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. They wanted to streamline U.S. intelligence--in essence, create a more hierarchical, less fractionalized community--yet do so without ever asking themselves whether that reform would actually fix what was wrong with U.S. intelligence.

Which brings us to the second big problem--the one far less commented on--that there were not actually all that many dots to connect in the first place. Would the new structure address the fact that the CIA simply wasn't very good at recruiting the assets we needed or that the FBI's law-enforcement mentality was not a good fit for the war on terror? No, but, then again, solving those problems would have required more "root and branch" reforms that neither Congress nor the Bush White House was interested in tackling in 2004. Easier to create a czar, draw new lines and boxes, and call it a day.

So, what we have now are turf fights and an ever-more layered intelligence bureaucracy. Maybe it won't really matter as long as those big problems get fixed and stay fixed. I suspect, however, that real intelligence reform is less likely when the boss at the top is even more removed from the agencies that might need changing. It could be that Blair's preoccupation with asserting his office's authority is a prelude to his using it to truly fix what ails U.S. intelligence. But I wouldn't bet the house on it.

Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.