Intelligence is a policy problem

By James P. Pinkerton Published:

By James P. Pinkerton

After three years in Iraq, what have we learned about American intelligence -- or lack thereof? One thing we have learned: Washington can always get together, on a bipartisan basis, to make a bad situation worse.

Three years ago, on March 16, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney went on NBCs Meet the Press and made a statement reflecting the predominant view of the intelligence community -- the confederation of federal agencies that spend maybe $40 billion to tell us what to expect.

After spinning out some Saddam Hussein-and-nuclear-weapons scenarios, Cheney got specific: We know he has, in fact, developed these kinds of capabilities, chemical and biological weapons. And of course, three days later, Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced.

So has anything changed in three years? Theres good news, bad news, and worse news.

The good news is that CIA chief George Tenet is no longer on the job. He will be best remembered for having told President Bush that the intel on Iraqi weapons was a slam dunk. Of course, that was what Bush wanted to hear, but top government officials are supposed to speak truth to power, not toady up to it.

And so to the bad news: On Dec. 14, 2004, Bush awarded Tenet the Medal of Freedom, the nations highest civilian award. Since then, Tenet has been quiet about his four years in the Bush administration, giving rise to suspicions that the medal was a form of hush money. If Tenet gets things wrong and gets a prize, what sort of signal does that send to others?

Thats water under the bridge, some might say. But now to the really bad news: The bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which gained fame in 2004, championed intelligence reforms that were more deforming than reforming. To his credit, Bush was at first reluctant to sign on to the key reform, the establishment of an intelligence czar. But under enormous pressure from the Democrats and the media, he gave way in late 2004, thus establishing the director of national intelligence.

The problem with the DNI is that we already had one. Under the National Security Act of 1947, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency was formally entitled the director of central intelligence. As the word central suggests, the DCI was supposed to coordinate all the efforts of the intel community, providing the commander-in-chief with a coherent product -- which, of course, would presumably be accurate.

If the DCI failed at that job, then thats an argument for a new DCI. But instead, Washington created a DNI to sit atop the DCI. In the words of David Rothkopf, author of a new book, Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power, Only in the U.S. government would one position duplicate another position like that. The man who is the DNI, John Negroponte, seems to understand that he is duplicative. And he seems OK with that. According to Congressional Quarterlys Homeland Security e-publication, Negroponte spends three hours every working day at the posh University Club in Washington, D.C., where he enjoys a leisurely lunch, perhaps a massage, and some newspaper-reading and cigar-smoking in the club library.

How can this be? As CQ explains, He really doesnt have much control over the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. So why not hang at the University Club? Almost unnecessarily, CQ adds that the conventional wisdom in D.C. is that the DNI is a joke. Negroponte disputes the CQ story -- no word yet on what big medals he might be in line for.

But what difference does it make who sits in which box? Well, we should have learned by now that process, for better or for worse, is policy. That is, failure to process information properly and accurately led to our cluelessness in advance of 9/11, and in advance of Iraq.

And, oh yes, now Iran is coming up.

Special to Newsday

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