On Sunday, CIA director Michael Hayden warned on “Meet the Press” that a reconstituting al Qaeda was preparing operatives in Afghanistan who would draw no attention while passing through U.S. airport checkpoints.
Exactly how vulnerable are we right now to a significant terrorist attack? No one can answer that question with any certainty. What we can say with assurance is that even as George W. Bush has overseen the single most far-reaching reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community (IC) since the CIA was created in 1947, his single greatest failure as a president might well be that American intelligence remains mired in bureaucratic mediocrity.
That bureaucratic mediocrity has already exacted a high price. A major installment came due when the CIA and FBI missed the Sept. 11 plot. A second came a year later with the CIA’s “slam-dunk” assessment that Saddam Hussein was acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, Congress radically reshuffled U.S. intelligence, creating a new intelligence “czar” — the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — whose office, the ODNI, would assume many of the coordinating functions that had formerly been in the hands of the CIA.
This shift was intensely controversial. One of the most frequent criticisms was that grafting a new bureaucracy on top of an already dysfunctional system would only compound existing problems. Four years later, how is the ODNI faring?
As with any secret agency, we do not know what we do not know about the achievements of the ODNI. Its greatest successes may be hidden from view, and the fact that the United States has not been hit by a second Sept. 11 might well be credited to its efforts. By the same token, we do not know all of its failures, although some dramatic ones have already come into sight.
The most significant of these is the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of last November, which stated flatly in the first sentence of its declassified summary that Iran had halted its nuclear-weapons program. This was deeply misleading. As the NIE summary acknowledged only in a footnote, the most important element of that program — uranium enrichment — was proceeding at full tilt. In February, Mike McConnell, the current DNI, disavowed the document, acknowledging that it should have been handled differently. But by that time the damage to America’s Iran policy — and to the ODNI’s own credibility — had already been done.
How exactly did the misleading NIE come to be drafted? The answer is not fully known. But a fascinating glimpse of troubles in the ODNI and the broader intelligence community comes from Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, until last summer an ODNI assistant deputy director. Ms. Tucker used her position, as she writes in the latest Washington Quarterly, to “galvanize change” among intelligence analysts. Under her tutelage, they would henceforth be required to “properly source evidence, avoid politicization, acknowledge uncertainty and assumptions, use alternative analysis, explain consistency or deviation, and strive for accuracy.”
It speaks volumes that Ms. Tucker hails the imposition of such basic requirements as if it were a revolution. But even putting elementary standards in place has not prevented other forms of trouble from multiplying all around. A striking 55% of all intelligence community analysts were hired after Sept. 11, 2001. Whatever the cost in lack of experience, the creation of a youthful and highly responsive workforce, motivated by a desire to get into the fight against America’s enemies, has to be counted as all for the good. But what has happened to these young men and women once inside?
According to Ms. Tucker, “they have been quickly indoctrinated into the conservative mind-sets that exist across the intelligence community.” In other words, don’t stick your head out, don’t take risks.
The organizational incentives that encourage such a posture are deeply entrenched. But ultimately, the problem is one of leadership. In the analytic side of the house that leadership continues to be woefully deficient, seemingly more interested in waging internecine political warfare than in genuinely improving tradecraft.
The ranking official in charge of analysis at the ODNI is Thomas Fingar, a principal drafter of the misleading Iran NIE and a former State Department official with a long record of undercutting the policies of the Bush White House. It is not an accident that back in September, shortly before the NIE was issued, Mr. Fingar selected as his deputy for “analytic integrity” Richard Immerman, a professor from Temple University who had taken part in “teach-ins” against the war in Iraq, and who had accused the Bush administration of gross malfeasance in the run-up to the invasion. The “Bushites,” Mr. Immerman wrote of the White House in an essay published in January, made “every effort to ‘cook the books,’ they ‘hyped’ the need to go to war, and they lied too often to count.”
In addition to being in charge of maintaining analytic standards, Mr. Immerman also occupies the position of “ombudsman” within the ODNI. In other words, the very official responsible for investigating allegations of partisanship in the production of intelligence is himself a declared partisan in the intelligence wars. No wonder analysts are keeping their heads close to their desks.
What is Mr. McConnell doing about this mess? His attention appears to be focused elsewhere. Late last year, under his guidance the ODNI unfolded a 500-day master plan to set things right. Along with a good number of unexceptionable steps, its number one “core initiative” is to “treat diversity as a strategic mission imperative” — in other words, as the document explains, “We need to have an IC workforce that looks like America.” Toward that end, the plan calls for the design of “mechanisms to hold IC leaders accountable for excellence in EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] and diversity management.”
Should U.S. intelligence have a workforce that “looks like America,” or would we be better off with one that looked like those of our adversaries whom we have been unable to understand, let alone to penetrate? That question is one of many that go unanswered in the 500-day plan, which focuses almost entirely on tertiary internal matters rather than on accomplishing the two most critical missions facing U.S. intelligence — stopping terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
The Bush administration, evidently cowed by the repeated and demonstrably false accusation that it is politicizing intelligence, is unlikely to address any of these problems in its waning days. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have not even indicated that they see a problem. Nonetheless, a great deal is riding on what one of them will do.
Mr. Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary, writes daily for connectingthedots.us.com.