July 23, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Bumpy Road to Better Security

Now that the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States - the 9/11 Commission - has reported its findings and recommendations, the dirty, roll-up-your-shirtsleeves work begins.

After 1,200 interviews, visits to 10 countries and almost 20 months of study and deliberation, the commission has offered us prescriptions for preventing the next terrorist attack.

But implementing the needed national-security reforms won't be a walk in the park: Egos, cash and turf are on the line.

Surprisingly, most of the commission's findings weren't earth-shattering. The nearly 600-page report (9-11commission.gov) offers a broad criticism of both the executive and legislative branches of government.

Why didn't the federal government prevent 9/11? The report cites failures of imagination, policy, management and capabilities.

* We used Cold War mindsets and tactics to deal with a post-Cold War enemy.

* Despite as many as 10 identifiable opportunities, our well-intentioned efforts did little to disrupt the 9/11 plot.

* The 10 commissioners concluded that neither the Clinton or Bush administrations nor Democratic and Republican-led Congresses understood the gravity of the threat. As evidence, the last National Intelligence Estimate on Terrorism was done in 1995 (with a minor update in 1997).

The report is also heavy on recommendations, including the establishment of a Cabinet-level director of National Intelligence and intelligence reform, more vigorous congressional oversight of the intelligence community (the intel committees are some of the smallest committees in Congress), strengthening the FBI's counterterrorism capabilities and boosting homeland security.

Despite this smorgasbord of keen ideas, there are still real challenges to implementing any reform:

Too Many Blueprints: Between various blue-ribbon panels and Congress, we now have at least five different sets of recommendations for improving our national-security establishment. These include: The Scowcroft Commission on intelligence reform; the Gilmore Commission on the terrorist WMD threat; the pending intelligence-reform legislation in the House of Representatives; the Senate Intelligence Committee's Iraqi WMD report, and now the 9/11 Commission.

And, oh, by the way, not all of these agree on the way forward ...

For instance, the Gilmore Commission called for the establishment of a British-style MI-5 domestic intelligence agency separate from the FBI, while the 9/11 Commission instead supports improving the bureau's counterintelligence/terrorism apparatus.

Turf Battles: Any change to the current national security structure is sure to be filled with lots of kicking and screaming by the agencies involved. No one wants anyone else messing with his rice bowl, especially if it means a loss of stature or resources.

For instance, seven cabinet secretaries now have intelligence functions within their departments. And the Defense Department owns seven of 15 intelligence agencies and a full 80 percent of the intelligence budget. Don't expect anyone to give in to reform without a real fight. (Some stakeholders, such as Acting Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin, are already pushing back on reform efforts.)

Timing: The last time we reorganized national security was under the 1947 National Security Act, which birthed both the CIA (from the Office of Strategic Services) and Department of Defense (from the Navy and War Departments). It took place after World War II, while the nation was at peace.

Today, we're at war. We have to make sure that any changes to our national security and intelligence establishment don't undermine our security in any way while the terrorist threat persists.

This may not be easy to do, but it's possible. We did it with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, bringing together 180,000 employees from 20 organizations.

It also isn't likely to happen this year. Congress has as few as 18 working days left before the elections, and it's already way behind on next year's spending bills. Unless both chambers reconvene after Election Day, they won't get much done this year.

It's clear that we need change in how we do national security. But we don't need change for change's sake. Moving the lines and boxes on an organizational chart to give us a warm and fuzzy feeling won't enhance our national security. Reform must be well-considered, substantive and timely.

9/11 caused this nation unspeakable pain. But things that hurt can also instruct. Let's just make sure we're smart enough to learn the right lessons from this tragedy to ensure it never happens again.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post