August 9, 2010 | Commentary on Intelligence, National Security and Defense

There's No Secret to Fixing Nation's Intelligence System

News flash: Government bureaucracy is inefficient and impenetrable.

You’re not surprised? Me neither. The same can’t be said for The Washington Post, apparently.

The paper recently concluded a two-year investigation of America’s intelligence system. It “learned” that: 1) “The federal government’s intelligence apparatus is too large, too expensive and too inefficient,” and 2) “Nobody’s in charge, since our country maintains dozens of bureaucracies and nobody oversees them all.” Well. Please excuse a conservative for being underwhelmed.

Our intelligence bureaucracy is about as ineffective as any other facet of the federal government. That’s why we need to make the system leaner and nimbler, less bureaucratic and more responsive to elected officials. A common thread throughout the Post’s series is that politicians became obsessed with intelligence gathering after 9/11. They began throwing money at the problem, creating new layers of bureaucracy.

Lost information

This matters, because in a bigger organization vital information can get lost. For example, various segments of the intelligence community knew about Major Nidal Hasan before he opened fire at an Army base last November, and about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be “underwear bomber,” before he boarded a plane for Detroit a month later. But that information didn’t get where it needed to in time to prevent attacks. In many ways the entire Post series reads like one more mainstream media attack on the former presidential administration. The left has repeatedly criticized George W. Bush for supposedly being obsessed with intelligence gathering. And, of course, we on the right frequently took him to task for overspending, although he looks like an amateur compared to the profligate Obama administration. This series retreads that ground.

The problem is that federal bureaucrats seldom get fired for failing to do their jobs. Instead, policymakers create new bureaucracies alongside the existing ones. That increases the number of civil servants, and the cost of information gathering, but does nothing to fix the original problem.

New position

Thus, CIA Director George Tenet wasn’t fired after Sept. 11. Lawmakers created a new position, a Director of National Intelligence, to oversee the failed CIA.

Before the position was created, experts at The Heritage Foundation warned, “Saddling the (Director) with too many powers and responsibilities will create an enormous new bureaucracy and another unnecessary layer of management, overburden the director, and hamstring leaders in the intelligence agencies who are trying to command their own organizations and make them as efficient and effective as possible.” Yet this is exactly what happened; a new bureaucracy merely grew alongside the existing one. Instead of solving problems, we duplicated them.

“The U.S. needs a streamlined and more efficient, flexible, and adaptable intelligence community that can do many things well,” the 2004 Heritage report explained. “Any legislative solution should improve the exchange of information within the government and consolidate intelligence collection and analysis centers within the department in which they are most useful and relevant.”

Yet as the Post report explains, there still isn’t enough information sharing. In fact, as the number of bureaucracies has grown, it’s probably become more difficult to exchange useful intel.

Our leaders need to move quickly to implement real reforms.

After all, the Post has put a spotlight on American intelligence shortcomings, and our enemies were undoubtedly talking notes. We need to fix the problems, before they can exploit them.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First appeared in the Youngstown Vindicator