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[infowar.de] Economist zum Scheitern und zur möglichen Reform der US-Geheimdienste
April 20-26, 2002
America's intelligence services
Time For A Rethink
Just when they are most needed, America's spies are in a mess. But
reform will happen only if George Bush wants it
WASHINGTON, DC -- Imagine a huge $30-billion conglomerate. It operates
in one of the few businesses that might genuinely be described as
cut-throat. Its competitors have changed dramatically, and so have its
products and technologies. But its structure is the same as when it was
founded, in 1947. Nobody leads this colossus (there is just an honorary
chairman) and everyone exploits it. Demoralised and bureaucratic, it
has just endured its biggest-ever loss. The response: the firm has been
given even more money, and nobody has been sacked.
Soon, the intelligence committees from the two houses of Congress will
begin a special joint review of America's spies. The joint chairmen,
Congressman Porter Goss and Senator Bob Graham, both insist that reform
is possible. But structural change depends on the administration, and
George Bush has already backed George Tenet, the Director of Central
Intelligence (DCI), who staggeringly refuses to admit that September
11th was a failure. "Failure", says Mr Tenet, "means no focus, no
attention, no discipline and those were not present in what either we
or the FBI did here and around the world."
The best protection for the intelligence services is that so few people
understand what they do. Most Americans associate espionage with the
Central Intelligence Agency and the DCI, the most conspicuous creations
of the 1947 National Security Act. In fact, the "intelligence
community" contains 13 federal organisations, and the CIA accounts for
only around a tenth of the intelligence budget of $30 billion. Most of
the real money goes to high-tech military agencies, such as the
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which runs the satellites, and
the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). The biggest, the
National Security Agency (NSA), once so secret that it was referred to
as No Such Agency, employs 30,000 eavesdroppers. By contrast, the CIA's
Directorate of Operations its human spying bit has only around 4,000
Some critics argue that the true cost of intelligence-gathering is
closer to $50 billion, and the number of agencies dealing with the
subject is closer to 45 (or even 100). They count in various bits of
the FBI (which oversees counter-intelligence at home), parts of the new
Office of Homeland Security, and sundry military and diplomatic
organisations. Generally speaking, the system gets more convoluted the
lower down you go, eventually becoming a blur of incompatible computer
systems, different chains of command and an obtuse budgeting system.
Above all, there is the question of responsibility. Mr Tenet, as DCI,
is both boss of the CIA and also director of all America's
intelligence-gathering. He has a "community management staff" to assist
him, but his real clout is small. Most of the intelligence budget is
controlled by proper departments, whose bosses sit in the cabinet. Jim
Woolsey, a former DCI, recalls that his predecessor, Bob Gates, warned
him that his position was like the king's in medieval France: the
nobles all swear fealty to you, but do not fear you.
Blown to pieces
Many people think this tangled structure (see chart) caused the
failures around September 11th. Others point to mismanagement, culture
and even the American way of life. Who is right?
The mismanagement school of critics, which wants Mr Tenet's head, can
only be buttressed by the pig-headed refusal of the seventh floor at
Langley to admit to any failure. The excuses proffered vary. Some pass
the buck around the labyrinth: CIA people point out that it was the
FBI's job to trail terrorists at home. Others point to the list of
atrocities that have been averted, which is fair enough, though at
least one of the examples, the capture of a bomber with Los Angeles
airport as his target, owed more to an observant customs official than
to good intelligence.
Al-Qaeda, America's spymasters tried to claim, was peculiarly difficult
to infiltrate, since it was open only to kinsmen of members. That
notion was blown apart by the appearance of John Walker Lindh, a
Californian airhead, in Osama bin Laden's trenches. As one former CIA
boss puts it, "Al-Qaeda was an evangelical organisation: it wanted
members. We never suggested any."
Enough. By any reasonable definition, the fact that 19 terrorists could
slaughter 3,000 people should count as a monumental failure of
intelligence the worst since Pearl Harbour. Besides, as one senior Bush
adviser argues, "it is not as if there were not enough clues to be
picked up for our $30 billion a year." The World Trade Centre was a
known target; al-Qaeda people had plotted to fly aircraft into
buildings before; a suspect had been picked up having flying lessons;
and so on.
Those who point to gross mismanagement are, however, currently less
influential than the "culture" critics. According to these, Mr Tenet is
less culpable than symptomatic of an intelligence community that has
been in steady decline, held back by political correctness and an
over-reliance on technology. Crucially, this explanation fits the
political agenda of both the spies and the Bush administration.
Reined-in and risk-averse
Some trace the decline to the 1970s, when, after a series of scandals,
the CIA was reined in by Congress. Many Republicans prefer to start
with Bill Clinton, who, they claim, was unwilling to wage war on
terrorism. In 1996, in the wake of the murder of a Guatemalan by a CIA
informant, officers were told to contact Langley before "establishing a
relationship with an individual who has committed serious crimes or
human-rights abuses or other repugnant acts." Nobody has been turned
down under these guidelines. But they cannot have encouraged CIA people
to make friends with, say, drug-smugglers.
The idea that the Directorate of Operations became risk-averse has been
widely promoted by frustrated ex-case-officers. In "See No Evil"
(Crown, 2002), Robert Baer recalls how in Tajikistan in the early 1990s
he asked for Dari and Pushtun speakers to interrogate Afghan refugees.
He was first told that the CIA no longer collected data on Afghanistan,
then offered a four-person sexual-harassment briefing team. Even
defenders of the spy system admit it has a job-for-life mentality. John
Gannon, a CIA analyst who has just moved to the private sector, says
that he has fired more people in the past eight months than during his
entire career in the service.
Yet daredevilry has never been more needed. During the cold war, an
intelligence system that relied on intercepting Soviet military signals
and picking up diplomatic gossip made sense. Now there are no ponderous
tank divisions to track; and you are unlikely to meet your opposite
number from al-Qaeda at the Brazilian ambassador's cocktail party.
In last July's Atlantic Monthly, Reuel Marc Gerecht, who worked for the
agency in the Middle East, labelled America's counter-terrorism effort
in the Arab world "a myth". An active spy describes coverage of Iran
as "embarrassing" (America has not had an embassy there since 1979). A
Bush adviser furiously says that "the White House has discovered more
about madrassas [fundamentalist Islamic schools] in the papers during
the past three months than we got from the intelligence system in the
previous six years."
The sheer lack of American knowledge about some areas of the world has
led to a form of poker game between its allies. For instance, European
intelligence services that know the Arab world have been keen to
balance information that Israel "spoonfeeds" to America. (All the
spies, however, grudgingly admire Israel's masterly exposure of an
Iranian-financed attempt to smuggle weapons to the Palestinians, which
ensured Iran's insertion in the "axis of evil" speech and Mr Arafat's
temporary excommunication by Mr Bush.)
There are "cultural" problems at home, too. America has no equivalent
of MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence agency. The FBI is a
law-enforcement agency: it looks for people breaking the law and
arrests them. Intelligence-gathering is based on watching people,
regardless of whether they break the law, and arresting them is often
Needless to say, there is not much love lost between the FBI and the
CIA. Indeed, turf-consciousness spreads throughout the many domestic
agencies that should play some part in intelligence-collection: witness
the lousy sharing of information about the September 11th hijackers
between the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service and local
cops. The coordinating Office of Homeland Security (see article) has
had little impact.
No James Bonds
Many spooks think the most important cultural barrier is a startlingly
simple one: Americans do not like spying. There is no local equivalent
of James Bond; in fiction, spies are mostly portrayed as right-wing
lunatics or bungling fools. Americans are less interested in going
overseas than other people are, and they stick out more when they do.
Even during the CIA's mythical heyday during the cold war, nearly all
its best agents were freedom- or cash-loving traitors who offered their
services without prompting. And the agency has never been that good on
the Islamic world.
More important, at home Americans value privacy more than most other
people. They hate the security cameras that Europeans tolerate. They
have opposed attempts to share knowledge about, say, suspicious
movements of foreigners. One former CIA chief speculates that you could
call September 11th "the failure of the ideology of the open society".
Some of these cultural shortcomings are now being addressed. Rules
about recruiting dubious people have been relaxed. Some of the language
gaps are being closed. The CIA alone has received more than 60,000 job
applications. Many spies think that this will be enough.
That seems wrong in at least two fundamental ways. First, the current
obsession with human intelligence downplays the importance of its
technological equivalent. Here, though America unquestionably leads the
world, a variety of technical problems still need to be fixed.
The NSA, for instance, has far too many old, incompatible computer
systems, and finds it difficult to eavesdrop on fibre-optic cables.
There is a row about whether the NRO should buy ever bigger, ever more
expensive satellites, as the defence industry wants, or whether
surveillance could be better achieved by smaller systems, not all of
them space-based. At NIMA, there is the challenge of making imagery
General William Odom, a former head of the NSA, says the intelligence
community has received as much new technology as big companies like
IBM, but has undergone none of the structural reforms of the sort seen
in the private sector. The technical agencies are also struggling to
deal with the huge amount of "open-source" information now available.
At present, the technology often works best as a retrospective tool
rather than a forward-looking one. After September 11th, all sorts of
details were tracked down in America's digital vaults, but only once
people knew the names to look for.
Telling the satellites and phone-taps where to look is also getting
ever harder. Mr Gannon points back to 1998. Before the year began, he
allocated the CIA's analytic resources to the priorities that had been
established with the White House. In fact, more than 50% of the actual
crises that year occurred in "lower-priority areas", and many of the
biggest ones, such as the global financial crisis, the Kosovo war and
India's nuclear test, were unanticipated.
Technology aside, the view that more manpower will make up the
intelligence deficit is wrong for another reason. Structural problems
often underlie the cultural ones. At the micro level, analysts are
moved around too quickly. Mr Gerecht suggests that the best way to
improve human intelligence rapidly would be to move spies out of the
embassies. Above all, there is the question of who controls what. When
the CIA's spy satellites missed India's nuclear test, this was surely
because the satellites were run by generals interested in tanks.
The chief spook and his enemies
"Reforming" America's intelligence services is not simply a matter of
getting better people and giving them more money and a slightly freer
hand. The structure needs modernising from top to bottom.
Like anybody who has been copiously rewarded for doing bad work,
America's intelligence services seem strangely caught between paranoia
and arrogance. Staff at the CIA's Counter-Terrorist Centre joke that
the only way they can spend the hundreds of millions of dollars they
now have is to upgrade themselves on trips from business class to first
class. Mr Tenet seems to have ridden the storm, and has even collected
the odd plaudit for the spies' current work in Afghanistan.
His supporters point out that the former Senate intelligence staffer is
more than just a political hack. His five-year reign has brought
stability, and he has both the president's ear and political nous (he
named the CIA's headquarters after Mr Bush's father). Moreover, Mr
Tenet, who is said even by his detractors to be adept at covering his
back, warned the Bush administration several times during the summer
about the possibility of a bin Laden attack. Cynical spies point out
that, had he been sacked, Mr Tenet might have contradicted the Bush
administration's claim that it has always been more vigilant than its
predecessor something that does not seem to have been true before
Recently, a commission chaired by Brent Scowcroft, a former national
security adviser, came up with a proposal to put the three main
technical agencies (NSA, NRO and NIMA) under Mr Tenet's control. The
first reaction of the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was to squash
this. It was not just a matter of turf-protection: military men point
out that the vast majority of signals intercepts and imaging will
always be for the Pentagon. On the other hand, the current system
plainly puts the intelligence services second.
Few in Washington expect radicalism from the new joint congressional
committee. Congressman Goss is a former CIA man; so is the staff
director of the inquiry, who also used to work for Mr Tenet in his
Senate committee days. More generally, Senator Graham talks gloomily
about intelligence reform running into an iron triangle of the
executive agency, its departmental backer and outside interests.
The idea of a cumbersome bureaucracy limping on simply because nobody
can face reforming it is depressingly unAmerican. The grounds for hope
begin with some of the people involved. Messrs Graham and Goss are
generally respected by their peers. Ask either man how he might
redesign the intelligence system, if he had a free hand, and both come
up with radical solutions. Others whisper that Mr Rumsfeld, who is
known to be appalled by the chaos, might be willing to support dramatic
reform providing there was a comprehensive plan. Even Mr Tenet has a
vested interest in reform: at present, he risks a place in history as
the captain who did not go down with his sinking ship.
Wholesale reform would be relatively easy to enforce. Most changes
could be brought about by an executive order from the president. Mr
Tenet also has far more room to be brutal: spies' jobs are
theoretically less well protected than those of other bureaucrats.
Out of Langley
What should be done? Given the fact that nothing has really changed for
50 years, the list is long. Two big jobs, however, stick out. The first
is that the intelligence community needs a proper chief executive not
another token tsar, but one with real budgetary power over the
technical military agencies (and with far more power over who runs
them). As a corollary, this new über-DCI should be taken out of
Langley, and a separate person should run the CIA. One reason why
reform has always failed is that it has usually been seen in the
Defence Department as a power-grab by the CIA.
One difficult question is how much of the actual analysis needs to be
centred around this new DCI. Some duplication is inevitable every
general wants to have his own intelligence analysis. And the sheer
number of agencies may be less of a problem than the fact that most of
them act as vertical "stovepipes" an insane idea for a community that
is supposed to be collecting information. Congress should be less
interested in how much money is being spent at NIMA than in how much is
being spent fighting bioterrorism.
The other priority is to break down the artificial barrier between
intelligence-gathering at home and abroad. Any thought of increased
surveillance at home will annoy Americans and increase their worries
about civil liberties. That is why it will need political bravery from
Mr Bush. But September 11th illustrated the shortcomings of a
50-year-old intelligence system. Senator Graham argues that it is basic
Darwinism: "If you don't understand changes in your habitat, you will
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