April 24, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Reform-and-Dagger: Fixing U.S. intelligence

Last Thursday, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, had a chance to appease his growing chorus of critics. He failed. The crowd for the speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., expected the DNI to mark the end of his first year in office by regaling listeners with dazzling stories of cloak-and-dagger successes on the battlefields of Iraq, or in the shadows of the War on Terror. Instead, he lulled them to sleep with fusty tales of management and bureaucratic triumph.

The best Negroponte could muster was a detail-less anecdote about how he, in his role as the new intelligence czar, had made an critical decision that broke an impasse over the future of the nation's spy satellite architecture.

Some pundits seized the opportunity to wield Negroponte as the latest political-appointee truncheon with which to pummel President Bush. In fact, though, the speech shows that he's kept his eye on the fusty bureaucratic ball. That's his job.

The problem is not that Negroponte is failing. In fact, the DNI is doing a good job in serving as the president's primary intelligence adviser, while undertaking what President Bush called "the most dramatic reform of our nation's intelligence capabilities" since 1947.

Our expectations are wildly excessive. In fact, the DNI is not supposed to be the reincarnation of "Wild Bill" Donovan, founder of the heralded WW II Office of Strategic Services.

Negroponte's job is, let us just say, a bit more mundane. The mission of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) mission is pretty unexciting: Manage the intelligence budget, ensure coordination and information-sharing among the intelligence community's (IC) agencies to provide the best intelligence available to policymakers.

It's no small task. Leading and managing an intelligence community with a $40 billion budget, and 100,000 people - both civilian and military - across 16 federal departments would be a Herculean project anytime. Doing it while implementing sorely-needed reform - and at war - is a nightmare.

As Negroponte put it in his recent speech, "We are in the process of remaking a loose confederation [of intelligence agencies] into a unified enterprise. This will take time - certainly more than a year - but with the right approach, it can be done."

And despite the volley of raspberries, Negroponte is making progress. As critical as some in Congress have been, the House Intelligence Authorization bill noted: "The effort by the DNI to create an intelligence community that is greater than the sum of its parts is beginning to bear fruit."

Communications: One of the failings that led to 9/11 was the lack of communications between the intelligence and law enforcement communities, particularly the CIA and FBI. Today, information flow between agencies on intelligence matters has drastically improved (but, undoubtedly, not enough). In addition, during the DNI's tenure, the FBI finally merged their counterintelligence and counterterrorism divisions with their directorate of intelligence analysis into an integrated National Security Branch. Hallelujah!

In February, Negroponte grew the IC from 15 to 16 agencies by incorporating the Drug Enforcement Agency. This is an important move considering the growing ties between the drug trade and terrorist financing in places like Afghanistan.

Focus: The U.S. government (rightly) sees terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and China as the country's top-tier intelligence priorities - thus needing laser-like attention.

To meet this challenge, Negroponte strengthened the counterterrorism center and established a counterproliferation center. He also set up North Korea, Iran, China and Iraq "mission managers" to improve interagency collection/analytical work against these "hard targets."

The DNI has also begun using "red teams" - outside experts who look at the same intelligence questions as government analysts to see if they reach the same conclusion - and, if not, why. He needs to extend the practice much further than he has so far.

Let's face it: The DNI's job is a tough one: Implement reform, change bureaucratic cultures and integrate foreign, domestic and military intelligence to seal the gaps in our defenses that the 9/11 Commission and others studies revealed.

In fact, it's probably the second most thankless job in the U.S. government after the FEMA director in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. You're just not going to make everyone happy, no matter what you do.

Negroponte hasn't got it all right yet. Constructive criticism and congressional oversight are great motivators for improvement. But he's leading a revolution in intelligence that, done right, will keep this country secure far beyond these difficult times.

Peter Brookes, Heritage Foundation senior fellow, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

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