If it were to receive a grade, intelligence reform might get a C.
It’s been more than a year since the intelligence community was restructured in an effort to prevent another 9-11. Initial assessments are mixed, but few experts think that the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act fully addressed the problems with intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination.
Among the major changes was the creation of a director of national intelligence (DNI), who is charged with fostering better communication and coordination among the 15 federal intelligence agencies. That is having some effect, says Dr. Patrick Ford, professor of intelligence and space studies at American Military University. The DNI has been able to foster better communication because the agencies see his role as a “neutral intelligence gatherer,” says Ford. He adds that it’s still early to fully assess the DNI’s job performance and the effectiveness of the restructuring as a whole because a full funding cycle has not yet taken place.
But if intelligence reform were to be given its midterm grade, it would definitely not make the honor roll. “The intelligence reform bill gets a C. We’ve got to continue to work this a lot harder, and one thing that we can’t do is allow intelligence reform to be treated as a box that we’ve checked,” says David Rothkopf, who is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
A critical issue that is yet to be resolved is how to best use technology to help agents share raw, unanalyzed intelligence information electronically. The act created the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to “serve as the primary organization in the United States government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence possessed or acquired by the United States government,” Ford says. But the majority of the information found in the NCTC database is intelligence that has already been analyzed by the various agencies. It is then shared with the larger intelligence community.
Finding a method for sharing the raw intelligence data, says Ford, is a much more difficult task, because the agencies may define raw data differently based on the type of intelligence they are gathering. Additionally, trying to link the various agencies’ existing databases may not be practical because standing contractual agreements and technology issues may make those systems incompatible.
A better solution, says Ford, is to create an independent warehouse of raw intelligence information that is fed by the various agencies. “If people can better define their requirements, you can come up with a centralized database, on WMDs for example, that can be updated and viewed by each agency,” he says. The difficulty, of course, is ensuring that every agency is contributing. Solving this problem would require better communication and potentially a review board to hold agencies accountable.
The 9/11 Public Discourse Project, composed of former members of the 9/11 Commission, also identified information sharing as having made minimal progress since 9-11. “The President and the DNI need to make change in the culture of information sharing a priority through clear and visible support,” say the group’s members. The President should also develop incentives for information sharing. Creating a technological backbone for this type of cooperation should be a priority as well, and the President should make resources available to enable this to take place, they say.
A second key issue is recruitment. Qualified personnel are regularly turned away from intelligence positions because of security concerns that may not be rooted in a real threat. “They need people with [certain] languages, but when they get them, they turn them away because they have relatives someplace” who raise security concerns, says Arthur Hulnick, associate professor of international relations at Boston University. Hulnick adds that he sees agencies like the FBI express interest in students only to leave them hanging when it comes time to offer a job. That treatment may discourage others from applying.
A third critical issue yet to be addressed is training for clandestine officers, which is antiquated. For example, says Hulnick, intelligence officers are still given the same training he received during his stint as an Air Force intelligence officer during the Cold War, which included requiring officers to jump out of airplanes—a skill that is now passé.
Fixing the intelligence system is an ongoing process that will take many years, says Rothkopf. “The biggest mistake we could make is to look at intelligence reform as something that was entirely contained in the intelligence reform act. We have got to constantly reevaluate the system and we’ve got to be open to reinventing the system as opportunities, circumstances, resources, and needs dictate.”