A Cozy Feel for a Bad Idea

December, 2002


It’s
said that a camel is a horse designed by committee and the Joint
Congressional Committee investigating the 9/11 WTC attack has come
up with a three-humper.
They propose a Cabinet-level position, a Director of National Intelligence,
to whom all other agencies would be responsible.
It feels warm and cozy.
Instead of the CIA Director, the FBI Director and the NSA Director
as scapegoats du jour, Congress and the President would at last
have a cabinet level scapegoat—one guy to point at, and an appointee
as well, as are all Cabinet members.
Nice touch.
A hotshot the minority party can denigrate for not doing the job.
A Director of Directors, a Czar who changes every four or eight
years and who can (with varying degrees of expertise) muddle up
the works of agencies whose workings are largely secret and whose
internal mechanisms have been developed over decades.
Well, of course they’ll freeze him out, then wait him out. It’s
an appointment designed to fail.
There have been failures enough to go around in the post-game critique
of 9/11, but it should be pointed out that Israel, with one of the
most dedicated intelligence agencies extant, has been largely unable
to stop a constant flow of suicide bombers. Suicide terrorists are
damnably hard to stop.
It seems to me that the three agencies primarily charged with
preventing another 9/11 are all sufficiently motivated, yet equally
demoralized. Morale can only deteriorate further with a meddlesome
Cabinet officer mucking about and learning the ropes, only to be
replaced by another learner.
It feels good, particularly to legislators, who love nothing so
much as an easy out. But it won’t wash.
Part of the current intelligence problem is too much information.
We have, by spy plane, satellite, informer and intercept, the capability
to collect more information than can possibly by screened for usefulness.
It pours in by the truckload, by the minute and much of it is ‘disinformation.’
Perhaps we collect too much merely because we can. Information
pulled from such sources is overwhelming. When you know everything,
essentially you know nothing, at least nothing of value. The various
agencies involved are going to have to deal with this weakness,
but they are best able to do it on their own and not under the
‘guidance’ of an amateur appointee.
But the main reason a coordination of agency focus isn’t practicable,
is that clandestine organizations are by nature compartmentalized,
untrusting within their own departments, risk-takers and risk-runners
who play their cards very close to the vest. Running agents, counter-agents,
double and triple-agents isn’t anything at all like managing a
corporation. A compromised operation can undo decades of careful
work, close entirely a fragile information chain and cost the lives
of some very good people. Such operations are, understandably,
unwilling to trust others with their assets—there’s too much
at risk. The identity of an asset is just too vulnerable to be
trusted to anyone outside his or her immediate contact, for fear
of exposure or, worse yet, the turning of an agent. Sifting the
validity of information from an asset is a constant chore, a matter
of judgment in an endless chess game of agents and counter-agents,
information and disinformation. No successful operation is run
by sharing intelligence, except at the very broadest of levels,
not within and certainly not across agencies.
Yet the thrust of the Joint Congressional Committee’s recommendation
is to do just that, to require just that and to wrap it all under
the control of a political appointee.
Impossible at best, disastrous at worst.
The CIA, FBI and NSA have done and are doing excellent work under
terribly difficult conditions. It isn’t enough. They’re hindered
by their own internal bureaucracies, individual egos, a certain
amount of ass covering and the usual problem of ambition getting
in the way of creativity. That’s just a fact, a very common fact
of human nature and these are human agencies. The agencies must
be fixed and the fix will require trust, money, time and commitment,
not an Intelligence Czar. The will be found partly in recruitment,
in agencies badly mauled by public opinion and no longer enjoying
a public image that supports recruitment. The fix is professionalism,
self examination and a rebuilding of agent networks that have been
neglected in the switch to hardware solutions.
Just as we’ve apparently abandoned the occupying foot-soldier
to a smart-bomb war footing, so we’ve pretty much neglected the
infiltrating agent in favor of the satellite. Both choices are
probably a mistake, each of them motivated by the desire for success
without risk, advantage without investment.
The public relations problem for the congress and the administration
is that none of this is a quick fix and we are a quick fix nation.
We’re vulnerable, while we look more deeply into a problem we hadn’t
spent much money or assets on. Another major terrorist action may
occur while we fix what we didn’t think was broken. No one wants
that, but just because a fact is ignored doesn’t mean it ceases
to be a fact.
Naming another “Czar” to get off that hook is disingenuous
as well as counterproductive.

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