April 28th, 2010
07:30 AM ET

Security Brief: Smart change is slow for U.S. intel agencies

There they stood, an unprecedented public gathering of all heads of the American intelligence community. The 16 leaders of the agencies and departments which make up the intelligence community stood at attention behind Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the DNI's formation.

Change doesn't come easy, especially when dealing with the entrenched bureaucracy of the federal government. So it's not surprising that five years after Congress created the position of Director of National Intelligence to run the sprawling 16 member community, that it is still very much a work in progress.

But did this rare appearance in front of TV cameras by a group of people who prefer not being seen really reflect the reality of a seamless intelligence community, sharing information and collaborating together to keep the nation safe?

The answer can be found in what had the potential to be the worst attack on the U.S. since September 11th if it had been successful. The failed attempt to blow up a commercial airline on Christmas Day exposed many weak points.

At a recent conference on the state of intelligence reform, DNI Blair said December 25th "shows us that yesterday's improvements from 9/11 are not adequate to meet today's problems, much less tomorrow's problems."

The problems ran the gambit from information that was hard to access because of outdated database software to faulty visa procedures to the failure of analysts to put together the threads of information and see the coming threat.

Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin believes the Christmas Day bombing attempt provides a great opportunity for the intelligence director to help further transform the intelligence community.

"Only the DNI by law can take the steps required in the aftermath to tune up the performance of the community," he said. That might be easier said than done.

McLaughlin acknowledges there is a "gap between the responsibilities" of the DNI "and the authorities of the office."

David Shedd, one of the deputy DNI's, said the intelligence reform legislation created tensions by giving the DNI "department-like responsibilities" but also making it clear the DNI "could not abrogate the authorities of any other Department head. In other words, "the DNI by design straddles everyone else's turf."

Since only one of the 16 intelligence agencies or offices - the CIA– operates independent of a department, the law left the DNI with limited authority. Other intelligence units are attached to departments like the Department of Defense. Shedd says the DNI must rely on personal relationships - with the President, Congress and his colleagues in the community - to get the job done.

Former Homeland Security Advisor Frances Fragos Townsend believes the power of the DNI rests with the President.

"The President must be clear on what it is he wants his DNI to do, what role he wants him to fulfill and how he expects him to execute it," Townsend said.

One of the forces behind intelligence reform, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, agrees with Townsend. He explained the law is ambiguous and only the President can resolve the turf battles.

Most of the experts say there is either no need or it isn't realistically feasible to pursue another legislative fix for the DNI. However, there is one person who knows quite a bit about the job who doesn't necessarily agree. Former DNI Mike McConnell maintains the law does need to be revisited. He says to get things done in a bureaucracy, you need authority direction and control. That is why he wants to see a tenured DNI - that is a director with a fixed term in office, and a cabinet rank Department of Intelligence.

"If we don't do it that way, we are going to continue to argue about these issues and it will be personality dependent," said McConnell.

When asked about his predecessors comment, Blair was non-committal.

"I'm kind of pretty busy trying to work with what I have," he said.

Some members of Congress have complained about the size of the DNI's office. There are more than 1,800 people under the auspices of the DNI, but nearly 1,200 of them work for mission support offices such as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Deputy DNI David Shedd believes those numbers are relatively small for the work that is being done.

Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, does not want to see the DNI's office become a big bureaucracy. It should be "lean and nimble," according to the Congresswoman.

There has also been debate about whether the DNI should be the primary spokesperson for the intelligence community. Hayden was critical of the visible absence of DNI Blair after the December 25th terrorist attempt. Instead, the White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan spoke.

It is something that "100,000 people in the intelligence community.. took note of," Hayden observed. The retired General added "he needs to be and to be seen as the primary legitimate spokesman for what goes well and what goes ill inside the American intelligence community."

Lee Hamilton agreed that the DNI should be the chief spokesman, but that doesn't mean he is the only spokesperson. Blair brushed off the criticism saying he spends less time counting his time on camera and more time focusing on his work behind the scenes.

There are success stories. Former CIA Director Hayden said the DNI shares some of the credit for making Americans safer today and called NCTC an "unalloyed success story in terms of what it has done to change how we defend the country."

Rep. Harman said intelligence products are much better. According to David Shedd, the update of the laws governing surveillance of Americans and the focus on cybersecurity would not have been accomplished if it were not for the efforts of former DNI McConnell.

But all of the current and former officials attending the Bipartisan Policy Center's intelligence reform conference agreed that the intelligence community needs to be better. Thomas Kean, the former co chairman of 9/11 Commission says although intelligence sharing among the community has significantly improved, it's not as strong as it should be. Hamilton pointed to the need for improvements in human intelligence and gaps on the analytic side.

DNI Blair said among his key goals to improve over the next five years is to expand assigning of agents from intelligence agency to spend time at other agencies and more extensive sharing of information between the collectors of intelligence and the analysts of it.

Change might turn out to be generational. As DNI Blair and others have maintained, it is the younger intelligence officers who tend to be more imaginative, innovative and see themselves as players on a team. With more than 50 percent of the intelligence workforce having joined government since the 2001 attacks, they could in a large part be the answer to how the intelligence community will transform itself into the seamless entity envisioned by the reform legislation.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. bill

    goes to show ya the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing

    April 28, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  2. rivirivi

    I can imagine the faces of the terrorist sociopath murderers who hate our United States of America and everyone in it with this kind of "heading" Why don't you just put it in black and white: "US's intelligence agencies are stupid." Darn it!

    April 28, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dawn

    Oxymoron=intelligence community. No department kept us safe on 12/25; the passengers did. Same with the shoe bomber. Too many hands in the kitchen. Too many heads of agencies with no experience-note Napolitano. She couldn't keep the border of Arizona safe when she was the governor of that state. I really fear for our country if these so-called agencies don't get their act together.

    April 28, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mal

    It is easy to criticize and tear down. However, we need to remember that perfection is difficult (if not impossible) to attain. We are quick to highlight and pick apart the agencies for their failures. Unfortunately, the nature of the beast most probably demand that their many successes be celebrated in silence. Lets give them a break. I don't think any of them, from their director to the file clerks go to work in the morning thinking of ways to screw up something. And, they are not stupid.

    April 28, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  5. dan

    Group-think is the trap into which too many in the intelligence commuity have fallen. Like the Morman boys two, white shirts, black pants and backpack, you can spot the CIA and even better, the FBI in public. They all look alike...to some degree.
    The internal communication is much too rigid and it is easy for ideas and perceptions to be buried. While in China for four years, I had "pop-ups" appear in my life as several tried to develop me as an asset. I learned to listen, carefully while working in the nuclear weapons industry. There is cultural leakage through vocabulary and behavior. Might as well put a pink dress on everyone and call it a day.

    April 28, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Lloyd Cata

    So, what do we have now that the deck chairs have been rearranged 'after' the superior first-strike attack by Islamic terrorists. And don't think the geniuses in the intelligence community don't in their heart-of-hearts admit it was an inglorious military feat by an enemy inexperienced in global military strategy with weapons of dubious destruction. Yeah, 9/11 was one that will go in all the books on military and defense intelligence.
    That's the reason for the 'jitters' around the shoe-bomber and the 12/25 attempt. Until they can prevent terrorists from getting on planes, until they can reasonably assure the American people that air travel is not still the primary terrorist medium, they have failed. They have been extremely lucky and they know it.
    Moving forward, the military contingent of this intelligence conference have live, immediate, and expensive assets in the nexus of terror activity. Their public expression of 'concern' with their own vulnerability within the sphere of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very telling, and one of the best displays of actionable intelligence out of this community in a very long time.

    Enlightenment is finding the dots. Intelligence is connecting the dots. Illumination is seeing the big picture. Will someone please give the assembled 'intelligence' professionals a flashlight before someone sets their house afire with a book of matches?

    April 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jed

    We see again that the country club environment has come full circle again. Dan's comment is on the mark. Intel is amassed in tremendous quanities but gets buried in the morass of red tape. Our enemies think that our goody two shoes approach to dealing with them as weakness. Civility should be extended to non-combatants. Nothing short of mahem should be deal to those that cross the point of no return. A Mossad type agency is needed. Enemies are to be eliminated, not entertained.

    April 28, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Paulo Borges

    We all need to get together and boycott Arizona. Not simply stopping to visit Arizona but to boycott any products from Arizona companies. Send letters and emails to put some heat on them. If we all do it, I am sure that they will quickly change their minds.

    April 28, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Pete

    So many people, so much resources... billions of dollars per year in expenses.
    The results?

    1. anyone found those reported WMD stockpiles in Iraq?
    2. what exactly was in those pictures of "mobile bio-warfare labs" presented by Collin Powells to the UN Security Council?
    3. did they find Saddam's nuclear stockpiles yet?
    3. where in the world is Osama bin Laden? Carmen Santiago?

    In other words, a colossal waste of resources to obtain worse than none "intelligence".

    Is there anyone in CIA or NSA that is not a complete MORON?

    Jesus! 😦

    April 30, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |