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March 19, 2001

Fixing U.S. Intelligence

Most people don’t keep score, but those who do know that the U.S. intelligence community has been slipping—badly.

Think about all the events that have caught the intelligence community by surprise lately: the 1995 nerve gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult on the Tokyo subway system, monetary crises in Mexico, Asia, and Russia, India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, North Korea’s ballistic missile test in 1999, terrorist bombings on U.S. embassies and military personnel in Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The list keeps growing.

Throw in the targeting of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and mistaking a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan for a chemical weapons depot (we bombed both). Add a hopelessly ill-informed covert operation in Iraq, and you begin to get the picture of an organization that continues to produce at least one major failure, snafu, or international incident every year.

Okay, intelligence is a tough business. But it’s a business with a bottom line—at a minimum, avoiding out-of-the-blue surprises and major errors. After each of these failures, officials promised to do better. So why is U.S. intelligence still failing?

One reason is money. Intelligence budgets fell with defense spending after the cold war and remained essentially flat throughout the Clinton administration—even though the number and variety of threats have been growing. Intelligence organizations do need to work smarter and could stand some shaking up. But you simply cannot cover more targets and support more users with less money.

A bigger problem, though, is bureaucratic culture. While the rest of the information world was moving at Internet speed, U.S. intelligence was moving like a supertanker. Recall how AOL and Microsoft scrambled to keep up with change during the past decade? That’s what is required. Unfortunately, intelligence reform has usually produced more paper and process than action.

Fixing U.S. intelligence requires organizations agile enough to react to the new threats, flexible enough to adopt the new technologies, and open enough to draw on expertise wherever it may be found.

At least three changes are critical. First, the intelligence community needs to rethink how to protect secrets without walling off analysts from their customers, outside information sources, or, for that matter, each other. Stop centralizing; start networking. Lots of officials were worried about India’s nuclear program, and lots of intelligence analysts were following it. Why couldn’t they talk to each other?

Second, focus government dollars on high-risk, specialized activities that no one else can perform. The private sector has greater flexibility and capital; let it do the routine stuff. Remember that, in the information age, the definition of “routine stuff” constantly changes. Keep refocusing the intelligence community on its unique niche.

And, third, to attract talent, make intelligence careers attractive again. Government may not be able to compete on salary. But it can cut the bureaucratic nonsense and provide opportunity for initiative and adventure.

We missed the opportunity to fix U.S. intelligence during the last eight years. The next four give us another chance.