The State of U.S. Intelligence

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading up on the intelligence community and it’s varied strengths or weaknesses. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time defending the Bush administration (or pointing out flaws in the arguments against the administration) in various forums, if only because no one else would. However, I’ve come to believe that our intelligence community is in poor shape… not really because of those we have working at these agencies, but because of the interaction between the intelligence community and the rest of the government.

The problem appears to be more systemic than deliberate as questionible practices such as “stovepiping” (the practice of taking a piece of intelligence or a request, bypassing the chain of command, and bringing it straight to the highest authority) became commonplace in the administration, even before 9/11. Basically, the Bush administration fixed the system so that they got raw intelligence without the proper analysis (intelligence is usually subjected to a thorough vetting). Given that they were also openly (and perhaps rightfully) distrustful of the intelligence community (and that the feeling was mutual), is it any wonder that they tried to bypass the system?

Don’t get me wrong, what the administration has done is clearly wrong and the “stovepiping” situation should be corrected immediately. There appears to be some spiteful and petty actions being taken by both the White House and the Intelligence Community, and no one is benefiting from this. A very cynical feeling is running through one of the most important areas of our national security. This feeling is exemplified by the recent leaked memo written by a member of Senator Jay Rockefeller’s (D-WVa) staff. The memo recommends that Democrats launch an investigation “into pre-war Iraq intelligence in such a way that it could bring maximum embarrassment to President Bush in his re-election campaign.” It has been fairly suggested that this memo is only a desperate response to the Bush administration’s maneuverings, but this does not excuse the downright destructive course of action that the memo advocates.

Bob Kerry, a former vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote an excellent oped on this subject:

The production of a memo by an employee of a Democratic member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is an example of the destructive side of partisan politics. That it probably emerged as a consequence of an increasingly partisan environment in Washington and may have been provoked by equally destructive Republican acts is neither a comfort nor a defensible rationalization.

I have no doubt that there are Republican memos of a similar nature floating about but the Senate Intelligence Committee, by virtue of its importance, is supposed to be beyond be beyond partisan politics and it has been in the past. It isn’t now. This, too, is unacceptable and needs to be corrected. Indeed, the Senate Intelligence Committee hasn’t held an open hearing for months, nor has it released any preliminary findings or provided any other insight. It’s website hasn’t been updated in months and contains spelling errors on every page (“Jurisdicton”!?).

The blame does not lie with any one governmental entity, but their stubborn refusal to play well together, especially with something as important as intelligence, is troubling to say the least. We are a nation at war, and if we are to succeed, we must trust in our government to effectively evaluate intelligence at all levels. The practice of “stovepiping” must end, and the White House will need to trust in the intelligence community to provide accurate, useful, and timely information. For their part, the intelligence community will have to provide this information and live up to certain expectations – and, for example, when the Vice President asks for something to be checked out, you might want to put someone competent on the case. Sending a former ambassador to Niger without any resources other than his own contacts, no matter how knowledgeable he may be, simply doesn’t cut it. He didn’t even file a formal report. I don’t pretend to know how or why those involved acted the way they did, but I do know that the end result was representative of the troubling breakdown of communication between the CIA and the White House.

And the Senate Intelligence Committee could perhaps learn something from the House intelligence Committee, which, in a genuinely constructive act of bipartisan oversight of intelligence, “challenged the CIA’s refusal to comply with their request for a copy of the recent report by David Kay on the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”

Of course, it must also be said that public acknowledgements about intelligence failures before 9/11 or the Iraq war may also prove to be counterproductive as they could reveal valuable intelligence sources (which would be “silenced” by our enemies). Such information cannot be made public without jeopardizing the lives of our people, and it shouldn’t. In the end, we must trust in our government and they must trust in themselves if we are to accomplish anything. If the past few years are any indication, however, we may be in a lot of trouble. [thanks to Secrecy News for Intelligence Committee info]