In light of the September 11 attacks, the incorrect reports of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the current debate over Iran’s nuclear weapons, the American intelligence community has received an incredible amount of scrutiny in recent years. This criticism has brought with it a strong desire for reform, one that is being treated very differently by various scholars, intelligence professionals and policy makers.
In his 2007 book Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American Security, renowned political scientist Richard Betts deals with the reform agenda in intelligence by outlining the number of challenges to gathering effective intelligence. These “enemies” as he terms them are imposing obstacles to intelligence collection, and bolster his claim that people are at times too quick and to harsh in their judgment of the intelligence community.
The reason is because the most tricky class of enemies are “inherent enemies” or tensions endemic to intelligence gathering and analysis that require careful navigation on a number of fronts including centralization vs. pluralism, secrecy vs. information sharing, accuracy vs. timeliness, and the value of objectivity vs. the value of influence.
Betts urges caution in reforming intelligence, since radical change risks damaging the parts of the intelligence system that function effectively. He also advocates more emphasis on analysis and open-source intelligence (or intelligence gleaned from non-classified sources).
Thomas Fingar, the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council favored this academic approach to the intelligence community in a discussion at the New America on June 5. Fingar agreed with Betts on the difficulty of balancing between these tensions as well as predicting correct answers accurately. Indeed, he argued that the intelligence community should be dealing with harder questions, and should not be afraid to get things wrong sometimes or of having dissenting opinions in intelligence reports.
Fingar placed the emphasis on reform within the intelligence community, and making sure that there is constant communication between agencies, and that everyone is cognizant of where specific intelligence came from. Finally, Fingar detailed the rigorous process of preparing an NIE, with constant checking, re-checking, and reworking of intelligence estimates to reflect debates
This story is being recaptured in the press where David Ignatius has argued for a streamlined, centralized intelligence service. Through a combination of external and internal reform, the intelligence community would be organized under one chief, while relying on a small, elite core of analysts dealing more difficult but essential intelligence questions.
Of course the most pivotal aspect to this debate is the legislative end of it. In early May, Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) proposed legislation, S. 3041, which would establish a non-partisan Foreign Intelligence and Information Commission. This commission would have a wide range of responsibilities, including evaluation intelligence coordination, investigating the distribution of the intelligence budget, and promoting increased language and cultural education for US intelligence and diplomatic personnel. The Commission would report directly to Congress and the President on its findings.
This is an interesting proposal, and it has the potential to be very useful in expanding oversight of the intelligence community. The only question, as with many of the reform proposals is if this extra oversight will make it easier to streamline the process of gathering and analyzing intelligence, or if it will simply add clutter to an already confused and uncoordinated reform effort.
Expect to hear a thought-provoking discussion on this bill and broader intelligence reform, when Senator Feingold will be speaking at the New America Foundation on Monday June 23rd at noon on, “Confronting Foreign Intelligence and Information Gaps.” It will be moderated by Steve Clemons. Seats are still available and you can rsvp here.
— Andrew Lebovich