John Stokes

Overcoming America’s intelligence woes

Overcoming America's intelligence woes
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The failed terrorist attack on a North West Airlines plane last month has reignited the debate about just what can be done to improve the performance of America’s intelligence agencies.

Despite spending close to $100 billion since the attacks of 9/11 nine years ago, it has become clear in the aftermath of the failed attack that all the old problems that were identified after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon still remain: Intelligence is not shared effectively and the analysis of available data remains weak.

To the reformers inside the intelligence community, none of this is exactly news. As money poured in after 9/11 there was little thought about overall strategy. The US intelligence system remains a mish mash, a massive and inert bureaucracy where insiders with no experience of managing budgets effectively are automatically appointed to the most senior jobs even though none of them would qualify to manage similar multi-billion budgets in the private sector.

The sheer scale of the mass that is US intelligence militates against efficiency – 200,000 people costing $75 billion a year in 16 different agencies all with their own parochial agenda. Whatever the political rhetoric, there has never been a US President smart enough and tough enough to take on the entrenched bureaucrats. Instead, there has been the constant application of Band Aids in the form of more money and people without the counter balancing force of accountability from top to bottom.

To take just three examples: The National Reconnaissance Office’s Future Information Architecture project to launch a new generation of spy satellites is years late and billions of dollars over budget. The NSA has spent billions trying to create a new generation of analytical tools that have failed to deliver. For at least ten years successive Presidents have tried and failed to create a national strategy to defend the nation against cyber attacks. And then there was 9/11. In every case not a single intelligence official has been held accountable for the squandering of taxpayer resources and for leaving the nation at risk.

To those in Washington who want real reform, the only answer is a complete restructuring of the intelligence community to reflect the needs of today and tomorrow rather than 50 years ago. What that means is cutting of the number of different agencies from 16 to four key components:

A single Director of National Intelligence would be a true CEO of the intelligence community with hire and fire authority and absolute control over all the budgets. This would not be a cabinet level position. To ensure the independence of the DNI, he or she would have a maximum 10 year appointment, much like that of the Director of the FBI.  The DNI would run a distributed intelligence enterprise and lend his resources to those who require an indigenous intelligence capability in support of their statutory responsibilities.  For example, the DNI would provide the Secretary of Defence and the Attorney General  with the intelligence capability to fight wars and combat crime. The DNI would truly integrate intelligence activities conducted overseas and those conducted on the territory of the United States.  FBI agents would return to investigative as opposed to intelligence work and soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines would fight wars, supported by an integrated intelligence capability.

The National Analysis Agency would be a single point of collection and analysis for all open source information. The other intelligence agencies and all government departments would come here for their basic information. This organisation will be charged with knowing what is knowable from open sources about threats, analysing gaps in our knowledge and performing social network analysis to determine who might have the information needed.  Only after this initial work has been done will intelligence platforms be tasked or developed.

The National Collection Agency’s only purpose would be to develop secret collection sources (human or technical) to fill the gaps identified by the National Analysis Agency.

The National Processing Agency would be the single intelligence  community information processing system;  charged with making collected information intelligible to a human being and disseminating that information to end users and analysts.  

But who will have the courage to drive through such a coherent solution to the nation’s intelligence woes? Judging by recent performance, Congress is too ignorant and partisan and the White House lacks the testicular fortitude.