the 1960's, U.S. intelligence focused on the threat of the Soviet
Union, the possibility of war in Western Europe, and support for
the ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia. These threats shaped the
way in which information was collected and analyzed by the various
members of the intelligence community (IC). After the early1990's,
the primary threat to the United States shifted from the Soviet
Union to terrorism. However, the infrastructure of intelligence
collection and analysis did not--and still has not--changed from
its Cold War roots.
May 14, 2004, the Heritage Foundation held a conference on the
topic of intelligence reform entitled "Strategic Intelligence and
Terrorism from the 1970's to Today." Insights from this conference
offer a primer on the state of national intelligence and its
weaknesses, the origin of current shortfalls, and the case for
Insights from discussions during the
conference include the following:
- The most significant limitations in
national intelligence are an inadequate capacity to share
information and the lack of human intelligence (HUMINT).
- Limitations of the IC transcend the
policies and decisions of any one administration, although resource
and policy constraints imposed in the mid-1990s exacerbated a
growing crisis in the capacity of the IC to provide effective
- Passage of the USA PATRIOT Act was an
important contribution to the war on terrorism, facilitating
information sharing between the intelligence and law enforcement
- The Bush Administration has also
undertaken important initiatives for improving information sharing
by the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC)
and Terrorist Screening Center (TSC).
- The emergence of the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) as an effective member of the IC is
critical to success in the war on terror.
- The current IC remains fragmented with too
many agencies, lacks the capacity to effectively integrate and
organize its activities, and does not have the right balance of
collection and analytical assets to meet the intelligence needs of
the 21st century. Reform and additional resources are needed.
- Strategic intelligence is not a "silver
bullet" for winning the war on terrorism. It cannot connect every
dot or resolve every ambiguity. We need a more sober expectation of
what good intelligence can provide.
The Cold War Shapes the Intelligence
major developments shaped both intelligence policy and
infrastructure in the 1960s and 1970s. The first was the
development of technical means of intelligence collection, such as
U-2 spy planes and photoreconnaissance satellites such as
to the successful use of technical platforms during the Cuban
Missile Crisis, U.S. intelligence became increasingly focused on
obtaining photographic "hard intelligence." Furthermore, technical
means of intelligence collection were ideally suited to gather
information on large-scale troop movements, as well the location of
military bases, industrial plants, and missile silos--the primary
targets of Cold War intelligence. As a result, priority for
national intelligence collection shifted toward satellites and
other electronic collection means and away from more traditional
agent-based human intelligence.
the same time, resources dedicated to HUMINT were severely cut
back. The most dramatic reductions were in the area of overt
intelligence, material collected from open (unclassified) sources,
often through State Department and other analysts at U.S. embassies
around the world by personnel knowledgeable in local language and
conditions. These reports did not only address military threats,
but a range of cultural, economic, political, and social
second major development during this period was the formation of a
multi-agency IC. As the U.S. government shifted toward electronic
and photographic intelligence collection technologies, new agencies
emerged to manage them. Over time the number of intelligence
agencies proliferated, and coordinating and integrating their
activities became increasingly problematic.
While the National Security Act of 1947
gave the Director of the CIA (in his role as Director of Central
Intelligence, or DCI) the overall responsibility for coordination
of U.S. intelligence, he was given no direct control over the
resources, personnel, or budgets of other agencies. Juggling
competing priorities, differing corporate cultures, and smoothing
over the inevitable inter-agency rivalries was (and remains today)
a difficult task.
The Threat of Terrorism
While terrorism, especially
Soviet-sponsored terrorism, was a concern during the 1970s and
1980s, it remained a secondary priority for U.S. intelligence until
after the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s. The bombing of
the World Trade Center in 1993 came as a surprise to the IC, which
initially believed the bombing to be the work of an "ad hoc"
terrorist group. However, soon after the bombing, the name Osama
bin Laden began appearing in intelligence reports and al-Qaeda was
specifically recognized as a serious threat to U.S. national
security as early as the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. While the
threat of transnational terrorism was widely recognized by the IC
and policymakers, virtually no initiatives were taken to address
the deep-seated limitations in U.S. strategic intelligence that
made it an inadequate instrument for meeting this threat.
Although the terrorist threat was known
and understood in the 1990s, spending on national security went
down during that decade, which affected both counterterrorism and
intelligence. With limited resources, there were other intelligence
failures, such as the sarin gas attacks in Japan. At the time of
the attack, the Aum Shinrikyo cult was "simply not on the radar"
because there were not enough intelligence analysts to research
potential Asian terrorism.
Post-Cold War Strategic Intelligence
Successes and Failures
the center of the shortfalls of the IC is a CIA that lacks the
resources and organization to adequately perform its mission. It
has long been the job of the CIA to do two things--steal secrets
and analyze information. It is failing the nation on both counts.
The CIA had failed to provide accurate information on Iraq's
weapons of mass destruction in both Gulf Wars, underestimating the
threat in 1991 and overestimating it in 2003. The Directorate of
Operations is locked into old business practices, focusing on the
recruitment of agents by deskbound operatives in embassy offices
and relying too much on intelligence provided by foreign
governments without independent corroboration.
Concerning the analysis of information,
the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence (DI) fails to produce
analysts who are nationally and internationally recognized experts.
The current system does not reward analytic expertise in a given
field, but rather, it recognizes management ability. The DI has
placed too much emphasis on "competing with CNN," in that it
focuses on small, tactical pieces of information, rather than
looking at the broader picture.
Post 9/11 Initiatives
events of September 11, 2001 threw into sharp relief the problems
inherent in the current U.S. intelligence system. After 9/11, the
task of coordinating and integrating terrorist threat intelligence
was given to the newly created Department of Homeland Security
(DHS)--although even now there appears to be overlap and tensions
concerning the roles and missions among the DHS, the FBI
Counter-Terrorism Division, the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center, and
other agencies. The challenges facing the Information Analysis and
Infrastructure Protection Directorate in DHS offer a case in point.
This is the first time that the task of amalgamation of
intelligence from law enforcement, private sources, "domestic
information" (such as tips by concerned citizens), and intelligence
agencies has been done by a single agency. Over time, some of these
problems, such as duplication of efforts by different agencies,
will likely smooth out.
passage of the USA PATRIOT Act was an important contribution to
this effort, facilitating information sharing between the
intelligence and law enforcement communities.
emergence of DHS as an effective member of the IC is critical to
success in the war on terrorism. Customers of DHS are the
individual states, territories, counties, municipalities, and
tribal administrations in the U.S., as well as the private
sector--entities largely neglected by the IC in the past. To get
terrorist threat information out, DHS, in conjunction with other
agencies and in close cooperation with the FBI, is currently
working to set up a system for disseminating threat intelligence to
its customers. If they are successful it will be the first time
that the U.S. intelligence community has effectively addressed the
issue of distribution of intelligence outside the IC.
Equally important to the future success of
the IC in combating terrorism are TTIC and TSC. Created by the Bush
Administration to facilitate information sharing and data
coordination for terrorist watch lists, these interagency
organizations will play a key role in maximizing the capacity of
the IC to address terrorist threats.
Reforming the Intelligence Community
Prior to 1981, with a few exceptions,
attempts to "reform" the U.S. intelligence community (such as the
Church Commission) were punitive measures used more to limit
permissible activities than to improve the collection and analysis
of intelligence. These reform proposals usually came in the wake of
ethically questionable, sometimes illegal, operations by members of
Executive Order 12333, signed by President
Ronald Reagan, explicitly spelled out the duties and
responsibilities of the various members of the IC. For the first
time, the roles and missions of agencies and individuals were
clearly defined. However, EO 12333 did not resolve the
long-standing problem of the DCI's inability to directly control
other elements of national intelligence. The FBI, the Departments
of State, Energy, and Treasury, the National Security Agency, and
other Department of Defense elements all maintained control over
their own budgets, personnel, and resources.
Perhaps the most often proposed reform
after EO 12333 has been the creation of a Director of National
Intelligence (DNI) with direct control over the entire IC.
Proponents argue that having a DNI would allow the Director of the
CIA to concentrate on running his own agency and allow for greater
integration and coordinated direction of the IC. At the same time,
there may be good arguments for consolidating the polyglot of
Other reforms under consideration are
shifting responsibility for managing TTIC and TSC to DHS. Whether
these or other reforms should be adopted should be the subject of
serious debate, as should the subject of improving congressional
oversight of the IC. There is little question that there is a place
for responsible intelligence reform and sound arguments for
increasing the resources dedicated to strategic intelligence.
What Can Be Expected from Strategic
the era of state-to-state tensions, U.S. strategic intelligence,
especially the kind provided by satellites, proved invaluable in
recognizing threats posed by other countries to U.S. national
security. However, emphasis on technical means of collection, at
the expense of human intelligence, has proved to be a disadvantage
when dealing with non-state threats such as terrorism. Terrorist
activities, to a great degree, are low-tech, and easily hidden.
While a photoreconnaissance satellite may pinpoint a tank battalion
on the move, it is unable to detect five men mixing explosives in a
rented storage space.
Additionally, the fragmented nature of the
multi-agency U.S. intelligence community creates barriers to the
free flow of information. Aspects of terrorism blur and cross lines
between traditional foreign intelligence and law enforcement
activities. Problems range from constitutional issues to
incompatible databases. Distrust and lack of communication between
intelligence and law enforcement also creates an additional barrier
in dealing with terrorist threats. Many of the problems of
strategic intelligence are inherent in the current system--relics
of an intelligence community designed to fight the Soviets, as
opposed to today's transnational terrorist threat.
when things work as they should, however, strategic intelligence is
precisely that: strategic. While the threat al-Qaeda posed to the
U.S., as well as the possibility of using airplanes in terrorist
attacks, were known prior to 9/11, that was not enough information
to pinpoint the location and timing of the attacks. Operational
intelligence of the specificity needed to thwart an individual
terrorist attack is far more difficult, and often impossible, to
Strategic intelligence is the first line
of defense for combating terrorism. To prepare for the future,
- Undertake responsible intelligence reform
focusing on ways to reduce bureaucracy, institutionalize effective
information sharing, and improve the capacity of the IC to collect
information on 21st century threats; and
- Provide agencies with the resources they
need to get the job done right.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior
Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
at The Heritage Foundation.