June 4, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

An intelligence shake-up

WASHINGTON - CIA Director George J. Tenet is on his way out, leaving an ambivalent legacy in his wake.

Despite all the confidence that President Bush expressed in Mr. Tenet, it was probably past time for him to move on. Retaining an intelligence chief who allegedly claimed it was a "slam dunk" that Iraq had a robust weapons of mass destruction program, when the data were actually far more ambiguous, would have been, well, untenable.

This is not to say that Mr. Tenet didn't inherit a tough job or that he was completely ineffective. Transforming the CIA from a Cold War institution into an agile, post-Cold War intelligence arm is a daunting task. It was complicated by years of underfunding and the inability of the Clinton administration to craft a strategy to stem the rise of transnational terrorism.

Mr. Tenet performed yeoman's service during the wilderness years. He served his nation for a long time (at seven years, his is the second-longest tenure as CIA chief). And the CIA had its successes, including outing Pakistan's nuclear peddler Abdul Qadeer Khan.

But there was also a litany of strategic failures - from missing the signs of India's nuclear tests to failing to get Osama bin Laden and inaccurately assessing the state of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Tenet failed to provide the critical, objective analysis the president needs, as both the House and Senate intelligence committees have noted. Yes, mistakes will be made. And it is unrealistic to expect strategic intelligence to provide all of the answers, all of the time. But the record of national strategic intelligence over the last decade is not good enough. It is time to move on.

Mr. Tenet's departure provides a perfect opportunity for Congress and President Bush to press as quickly as possible for responsible intelligence reform.

Today's intelligence network is staffed with dedicated men and women who do fine work, but it's not the right instrument for facing the challenges of the 21st century. The Bush administration has done much to improve counterterrorism operations by adding resources and shifting priorities, but more needs to be done. The United States needs intelligence agencies that are as facile in dealing with shadowy transnational gangs as they are in countering conventional enemies.

Today's national intelligence community consists of 15 agencies within the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and departments of Defense, Energy and Treasury. The result is a deeply fractured and parochial intelligence community, unable to exploit information-age technologies and operational practices. Turf battles and cross-agency communication problems are the rule rather than the exception, and no one is in charge.

Mr. Tenet has served as director of the CIA and is the president's senior intelligence adviser, but his title remains a misnomer. The secretary of defense owns 80 percent of the intelligence budget and seven of the 15 intelligence agencies. During the Cold War, it made sense for the defense secretary to own the majority of intelligence assets because the Soviet military posed the primary threat to U.S. security. Today, threats are more diffuse.

Testimony before the 9/11 commission clearly demonstrates the need for better sharing and dissemination of information at all levels of government. Specifically, the United States needs:

  • A national leadership that will ensure rapid improvement in information-gathering capabilities at all levels and access to timely, reliable and actionable information from both foreign and domestic sources for use at the federal, state and local levels.

  • An information clearinghouse where all intelligence and law enforcement agencies can screen data about terrorist activities.

  • The Department of Homeland Security to become the single integrator of the domestic intelligence picture as envisioned by the Homeland Security Act.

  • Strengthened use of intelligence in visa issuance and monitoring, enforcement of immigration laws and anti-money-laundering activities.

Mr. Tenet noted yesterday that he was leaving "with sadness, but with my head held very, very high." Only if policy-makers undertake some serious reforms of our intelligence community - and ensure that our president is given the rock-solid, reliable information he needs to make responsible decisions - can we share in the second half of his sentiment.

James Jay Carafano, a 25-year veteran of the armed forces, is a senior research fellow in defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Baltimore Sun