The controversy surrounding the American pre-war intelligence assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs dominates the airwaves and print media. Behind-the-scenes investigations spawned by the Iraq performance as well as the tragedies of September 11, 2001 offer a fleeting window of opportunity to chart and implement much-needed reforms of a beleaguered intelligence community.

The intelligence community’s failure to warn with the clarity needed to disrupt the conspiracy of September 11 and its less-than-stellar performance in assessing Iraqi wmd programs highlight both the dangers to security and the demands for strategic intelligence in the twenty-first century. The community can hardly be trusted to do an honest and balanced critique of its performance in the wake of these events. It comprises numerous intelligence agencies, each with its own set of entrenched interests. As it stands today, the intelligence agencies are bureaucratically modeled after the management layers and hierarchies of the blue-chip companies of old, such as ibm.1 But while the market weeds out noncompetitive companies that are too rigid and inflexible to be successful in the private sector, noncompetitive organizations are perpetuated by inertia in the public sector. As Richard K. Betts insightfully noted in Foreign Affairs (“Fixing Intelligence,” January-February 2002), “The current crisis presents the opportunity to override entrenched and outdated interests, to crack heads and force the sorts of consolidation and cooperation that have been inhibited by bureaucratic constipation.”

The intelligence community’s antiquated capabilities are devoted to exploitation of clandestinely acquired information that collectively sheds only a narrow light on the broad array of national security threats. Intelligence — in its boiled-down essence — is information, and information is critical to the power of competitive businesses as well as to the power of terrorists and nation-states. But in the United States, the intelligence community has profoundly lost its competitive advantage over the private sector for the collection and analysis of publicly available information. In order to gain greater access to the secrets that transnational organizations and nation-states seek to deny the U.S. as well as to exploit the explosion in public information, the community must sharpen its collection and analytic tools. Reforms instigated by independent reviews and implemented either by executive order or by congressional legislation need to be aimed at transforming the intelligence community from failed top-down institutions based on obsolete business models of the 1950s to the nimble, bottom-up, flat, and networked organizations that thrive in the age of information technology revolution. The United States needs to reforge its obsolescent intelligence community if it is to match wits with transnational threats to American security such as al Qaeda and traditional threats stemming from nation-states with the political intent and military means to challenge American interests and power.


First stop, the CIA

The central intelligence agency is the “first among equals” in the intelligence community and deserves particularly close independent scrutiny. The agency benefits from a bureaucratic position that separates it from the pressures of policy interests to a far greater degree than its brother intelligence agencies. The cia also uniquely benefits from its traditional privileged access to the president and his key national security lieutenants. Yet cia’s support to the commander-in-chief over the past decade in major armed conflicts reveals a consistent pattern of shortcomings, particularly in regard to human intelligence collection. One of the starkest lessons to be gleaned from looking at past cia performance is that it has consistently failed to produce top-quality human intelligence against the greatest threats to the United States.

cia suffers from a ponderous bureaucratic structure that makes it sluggish in response to events, impedes intellectual and analytic initiative, and diverts resources from nurturing and keeping analytic talent. The analytic side of the agency, the Directorate of Intelligence (di), made a failed effort in 1996 to flatten the hierarchy. The well-intentioned effort to cut managerial levels in order to free up resources to devote to analytic talent was predictably suffocated by entrenched bureaucratic interests. Today, a working-level analyst is separated from the director of central intelligence (dci) by about eight bureaucratic rungs. This is a far cry from the flat and flexible organizational charts of companies that thrive in the information technology era.

Analysis moves painstakingly slowly through the bureaucratic structure, and iconoclastic views that challenge conventional wisdom are very likely to have their edges substantially smoothed in the laborious review process. Analysts suffer considerable frustration. Their charge is to write analyses for the senior levels of the national security policymaking community. Even uncontroversial analysis suffers from pronounced dumbing-down effects as it passes up and through the chain of command. More often than not, policymakers are substantially more conversant with international issues than cia managers, who in the review act more as overpaid editors — without the technical expertise of professional editors — to make analysis more understandable for themselves rather than the far more expert consumers in the policy community.

The production of intelligence analysis takes the form of an inverted pyramid. One or a few junior analysts, for example, might draft a piece of intelligence analysis. It then passes through a chain of command loaded with gs-15 and Senior Intelligence Service (sis) managers, who typically impose more stylistic than substantive changes. The piece of analysis then passes to a current intelligence staff stuffed with gs-15 or higher individuals, who further massage the analysis into stale and boring prose before publication in the President’s Daily Brief or the more widely disseminated Senior Executive Intelligence Brief.

The President’s Daily Brief travels with cia briefers downtown each workday morning to be read by the president and his key national security policy advisers, including the vice president, the national security adviser, the secretaries of defense and state, and the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On some occasions, the dci may lead the president’s briefing team. The direct and personal provision of intelligence to the commander-in-chief gives cia the lead for strategic intelligence in the community. The cia briefing teams are able to learn first-hand the policy concerns and intelligence interests of key policy players. The policymakers, in turn, are able to ask questions about raw intelligence reports and multi-source analyses as well as task cia for follow-up or new analyses.

cia briefers return from policy community runs to Langley each morning with tasking in hand. Unfortunately for analysts, that tasking slowly and laboriously flows down the chain of command, reaching them only late in the day. In many instances, analysts may be able to write a piece of analysis in relatively short order, only to be confronted with the time-consuming and cumbersome internal bureaucratic process. The wisest and most seasoned analysts opt to wait for managers to go home for the evening before drafting an analysis in order to avoid several rungs of review by the agency managers.

The agency today operates on a top-down organizational model rather than the bottom-up model that succeeds in the private information-technology sector. Agency analytic managers frequently push down orders for intelligence analyses. Such orders often force analysts to produce analyses whether or not there is a critical mass of classified intelligence that fills knowledge gaps in publicly available information and assessments for policymakers. The analysis produced by this top-down approach often strikes policymaker consumers as shoddy, incompetent, or simply inconsequential. It is no wonder that the 1996 Brown Commission found that “Often what they [policymakers] receive fails to meet their needs by being too late or too unfocused, or by adding little to what they already know.”2

This top-down cultural ethos has grown stronger over the years, in part because the agency does poorly in training, nurturing, and retaining experts. As the working-level analytic workforce becomes younger and more inexperienced, the aging ranks of agency managers are increasingly insecure about the quality, timeliness, and policy relevance of analysis. They compensate by micromanaging the production cycle. Micromanagement, in turn, discourages analysts and stifles intellectual innovation among inexperienced and more seasoned analysts alike.

Onerous security procedures are also formidable barriers to expertise in the di. The United States is blessed with an enormously diverse population, but the cia and the intelligence community at large have failed miserably at tapping this wealth of cultural talent and harnessing it for intelligence collection and analysis to defend the country. Security background investigations are loaded with ethnocentric biases that collectively border on xenophobia. Job candidates who are naturalized or first-generation American citizens are assumed to be spies for hostile foreign powers until proven otherwise. Those job candidates with relatives or close friends overseas and extensive travel abroad have high chances of being precluded from intelligence service out of concern that they would be too vulnerable to foreign influences.

These are unacceptable cases of the security and administrative tail wagging the operational and analytic dog. What American citizen is going to be fluent in languages such as Arabic or Chinese unless he or she has close friends or family abroad or has lived overseas for extended periods of time? Despite the cia security restrictions and expectations, one simply does not become fluent in difficult languages by living like a vestal virgin. These overly burdensome security considerations prevent the intelligence community from making full and wise use of the National Security Education Program, which is designed to give scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students studying hard languages, frequently abroad. Recipients are required to pay off their scholarships with post-graduation service in the government, but security concerns often prevent scholarship recipients from serving in intelligence agencies.

These security barriers are contributing substantially to chronic linguistic skill shortages in the cia and increasing American vulnerability to attack. As the congressional Joint Inquiry into the September 11 attack and the intelligence community’s performance determined, “the Intelligence Community was not prepared to handle the challenge it faced in translating the volumes of foreign language counterterrorism intelligence it collected. Agencies within the Intelligence Community experienced backlogs in material awaiting translation, a shortage of language specialists and language-qualified field officers, and a readiness level of only 30 percent in the most critical terrorism-related languages.”3

Nothing could better illustrate the clash of cultures between the Cold War mentality of the agency’s managerial ranks and the young recruits that represent the agency’s future than security restrictions at the front door of the George Bush Center for Intelligence, cia’s headquarters. Agency personnel and visitors are prohibited from bringing in laptop computers, cell phones, and Palm pilots out of an unrealistic fear that these items could be used for espionage. Such security prohibitions would hardly deter a traitor from committing espionage; Aldrich Ames’s years of betrayal by walking out the cia’s front door with classified information stuffed into his pants is a striking case in point. These pieces of technology are the lifeblood of private and professional lives in the information-technology era. The security prohibitions undoubtedly are more effective in deterring a younger generation of analysts, who want to hone and keep current on the professional skills needed to stay competitive in the information-technological revolution, from pursuing long-term cia careers.

These security requirements act as concrete barriers to the nourishing of cia analytic contacts with outside experts. As the Brown Commission rightly judged, “The failure to make greater use of outside expertise at the cia appears to result in part from a lack of financial resources and in part from onerous security requirements — particularly the polygraph examination and the requirement to submit subsequent publications for review — that discourages some outside experts from participating in intelligence work.” cia analysts might have occasion to chat with a foreign scholar over substantive issues at an academic conference in the United States, but the wrath of security officers would fall on an analyst’s head if he or she had a one-on-one discussion with the same expert abroad.

One of the most damning criticisms of the agency is that it fails miserably at recruiting, nurturing, and retaining experts of its own, while excelling at producing bureaucrats. The Brown Commission found that “While there are some analysts in the Intelligence Community who are nationally known experts in their respective fields, they are the exception rather than the rule.” To underscore this point, few of this journal’s readers, off the top of their heads, would be able to name a handful of agency analysts who are widely respected experts. Are the agency’s “Team Leaders” or “Issue Managers” responsible for the multi-disciplinary teams that produce analysis on North Korea, China, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, India, or Europe internationally or nationally recognized scholars or experts? In marked contrast, many readers would likely be able to identify numerous foreign affairs experts from the halls of academe or think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the rand Corporation. The sorry state of affairs is such that while cia has few experts of national or international standing, guessing from the bureaucratic wire diagram of the analytic corps posted on the agency’s website, the di alone has managers numbering in the triple digits. The American policymaking community and the general public have the right to ask: What is the agency’s contribution to national security — expert analysts who make sense of the world for our decision makers or bureaucrats who push paper?

With much fanfare the di launched a new career path in the analytic ranks, called the Senior Analytic Service (sas), designed to counter criticisms of its analytic prowess. The career path — in theory — was to offer greater financial compensation for analysts who choose to remain analysts and hone their expertise rather than leave the analytic ranks for the more remunerative management track. But in actuality, for all intents and purposes the cia broadly conferred the status of sas on its gs-15s, adding only a handful of sis officers who were still clinging to analysis — moves which accomplished little in addressing the Brown Commission’s criticisms. Over time, the sas, as in the case of the failed effort to flatten the di’s management hierarchy, will likely suffer slow asphyxiation to make more funds available for the managerial ranks that control agency and di purse strings.

More recently, the Joint Inquiry faulted the lack of analytic expertise in large measure for the intelligence failure of September 11. It found that the intelligence community’s understanding of al Qaeda was “hampered by insufficient analytic focus and quality, particularly in terms of strategic analysis. . . . The quality of counterterrorism analysis was inconsistent, and many analysts were inexperienced, unqualified, under-trained, and without access to critical information. As a result, there was a dearth of creative, aggressive analysis targeting Bin Ladin and a persistent inability to comprehend the collective significance of individual pieces of intelligence. These analytic deficiencies seriously undercut the ability of U.S. policymakers to understand the full nature of the threat, and to make fully informed decisions.” These stark conclusions demonstrate that it is long past time for the White House or Congress to order cia management to remodel di business practices for recruiting, nurturing, and retaining analytic expertise.


Stilettos inside the Beltway

While the quality of analysis is dull inside cia headquarters, knife fights are underway over power relationships within the intelligence community writ large. The press has swirled with reports that the Pentagon established a small intelligence unit specifically to analyze defector reporting from Iraq. Leaks from anonymous community insiders are concerned that the Pentagon put a political spin on analysis to press the president into war. As the New York Times reported (“Pentagon Sets Up Intelligence Unit,” October 24, 2002), “Some officials say the creation of the team reflects frustration on the part of Mr. Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and other senior officials that they are not receiving undiluted information on the capacities of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and his suspected ties to terrorist organizations. But officials who disagree say the top civilian policy makers are intent on politicizing intelligence to fit their hawkish views on Iraq.”

Charges of politicizing intelligence at this stage are probably overblown. The cia is indeed best positioned bureaucratically to produce intelligence analysis that is divorced from policy interests, and as long as the dci continues to have access to the president — and George Tenet by most public accounts does enjoy access to, and the confidence of, George W. Bush — it is not likely that Pentagon analysis will unduly straitjacket the president’s policy deliberations.

But while the Pentagon policymakers — with their crushing workloads, long working hours, and frantic schedules — may be ill-suited to produce thoughtful, deliberate, and insightful analyses, cia analysts ought to have the intellectual courage to welcome an honest debate over intelligence assessments and recognize the potential benefits from hearing and debating alternative analyses. cia may be — more often than not — objective in its analysis, but objectivity does not directly equate with being right. cia, for example, grossly underestimated the size and scope of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the run up to the 1990-91 Gulf War.4 Repeated failures such as those around September 11 — and the earlier failures to predict the progress of North Korean ballistic missile programs and Indian nuclear weapons programs — attest to this stubborn reality. The cia ought to have sufficient confidence in its assessments to argue with contending assessments, whether from the Pentagon or elsewhere in the ic. If cia’s analytic cases are found wanting, cia needs to go back to Langley and rethink the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in its analyses.

Contrary to the press story line, cia’s own shortcomings probably contributed more to the need for the Pentagon to take its own critical look at intelligence than any desire to “cook” intelligence. More specifically, a longstanding gap between Directorate of Operations (do) case officers and di analysts impeded the rigorous exploitation of Iraqi defector reports. The do is still working according to business practices developed into standard operating procedure during the Cold War — namely, of actively recruiting agents and running them in place inside their governments to provide intelligence on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, this model has consistently failed to give the United States access to our adversaries’ decision-making councils. Our history of human penetrations against adversaries with whom we are at war is poor. We had no top-level penetrations of North Korea and China in the 1950s, of North Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, of the Soviet Union during the entire Cold War, and of Iraq in the first Gulf War. Judging from the preliminary findings of the Senate-House Joint Inquiry, cia had a variety of human sources reporting on al Qaeda operational planning against the United States, but obviously not the deep penetrations required to cut through the fog of gossip and speculation to gain sufficient clarity to stop a September 11 conspiracy. The jury is still out as to how bad the do human intelligence was against Iraq, particularly on Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. The initial read does not look favorable.

The tragedy of September 11 was only the most recent in a string of do human intelligence collection failures. As the Joint Inquiry determined, “Prior to September 11, 2001, the Intelligence Community did not effectively develop and use human sources to penetrate the al-Qa’ida inner circle. This lack of reliable and knowledgeable human sources significantly limited the Community’s ability to acquire intelligence that could be acted upon before the September 11 attacks. In part, at least, the lack of unilateral (i.e., U.S.-recruited) counterterrorism sources was a product of an excessive reliance on foreign liaison services.” Overreliance on foreign liaison services is in no small measure attributable to the dearth of Arabic language skills in the do, for reasons discussed earlier.

This longstanding dismal performance of American human intelligence in wartime demands independent examination. One practice that needs a critical look is the do’s tradition of going out to find and seduce agents to work for the United States. History is replete with examples of the best agents “walking in,” or volunteering their services. Other potential sources of information that need to be exploited more rigorously are defectors. The do is loath to do the administrative and analytic work needed to separate the wheat from the chaff in evaluating defector information. The incentive structure in the do today is such that an officer who recruits an agent who provides third-rate intelligence reaps greater professional rewards and potential for advancement than the officer who debriefs a defector and provides top-quality intelligence. That incentive structure needs changing. Encouraging defections may be the best method for obtaining secrets from nation-states like Saddam’s Iraq or the current regimes in North Korea, China, Iran, and Pakistan, all of which have tight security and sophisticated denial and deception capabilities. Yet do officers receive little to no professional rewards for encouraging the defection and debriefing of high-level officials from closed, or “denied area,” states. Moreover, do officers on balance lack the temperament and intellectual tools for systematically debriefing defectors and checking their information against the wealth of information from other sources to establish veracity, a process that is more analytic than operational. The di, meanwhile, is poorly organized to support broad and sustained defector debriefing programs. di officers for the most part have introverted personalities not well suited for the assertive give and take of debriefings, are too chained to their headquarters desks and computer screens by micromanagers, and lack the linguistic skills needed to gain the trust and confidence of defectors. In short, defector reporting falls between the two bureaucratic stools.

Community insiders are also leaking to the press to take aim at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s support for the establishment of an undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Critics argue that the position will allow the secretary of defense and the military to dominate the ic. These criticisms may have some merit, but they miss a larger point. To be sure, the intelligence community is increasingly dominated by the Pentagon, which controls about 85 percent of the intelligence budget. That budgetary power undermines the authority and control of the dci, who in theory is to be calling the shots for American intelligence.

On the other hand, with such a portfolio of responsibilities, it is reasonable for the secretary of defense to have a point person in managing intelligence responsibilities. If the trend of increasing control by the Pentagon is to be curtailed in the longer run to avoid jeopardizing the intelligence needs of civilian policymakers, who have broader portfolios of responsibilities spanning the full spectrum of American power — including politics, diplomacy, and economics — the theoretical responsibilities of the dci have to be matched with budgetary resources. Unless the dci controls the lion’s share of the intelligence budget, the Pentagon — with or without an undersecretary for intelligence — will wield supreme power.

The Joint Inquiry’s call for amending the National Security Act of 1947 to establish a “director of national intelligence” statutory post in and of itself will do little to correct the drift of intelligence toward military prerogatives. The role and responsibilities of the director of national intelligence are little more than a rehash of the theoretical responsibilities and authority of the dci. The establishment of the post is likely to do more harm than good by superimposing yet another ponderous layer of bureaucracy onto an already top-heavy intelligence community superstructure. The community will already have its hands full grappling with the challenges posed by the new bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security; we need not add to this burden the establishment of a director of national intelligence. American policymaker interests would be better served by strengthening the hand of the dci and keeping that official close to human intelligence collection and analysis.


A sharper, lighter, stronger sword

Sharpening the dull intelligence blade will require a strong hand from outside the intelligence community. Left to their own devices, the cia’s do and di managements have no incentive to bring about reforms; they have clearly vested interests in the perpetuation of a system in which they benefit regardless of the worth of intelligence to American policymakers. cia’s persistent operational and analytic shortcomings elude quick and easy fixes. Instead of probing deeply and critically into these “software” problems, outside reviewers are drawn by an almost gravitational force to look at “hardware” and bureaucratic wire diagram changes as vehicles for reform. The new commission would be well advised to look for ways to nurture operational and analytic talent and avoid bureaucratic changes that are akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Outside review should examine the manager-analyst ratios inside cia and compare them to private-sector information technology firms to identify which support staffs and managerial layers could be reduced so that resources could be devoted to intelligence collection and analysis. cia’s bureaucratic ossification has sadly reached such a state that, despite dci Tenet’s December 1998 memorandum to his cia deputies, in which he wrote, “We are at war. . . . I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside cia or the Community,” cia’s counterterrorism operations in 1999 had only three analysts assigned full-time to bin Laden’s terrorist network worldwide.5Pathetically and inexcusably, cia had more individuals occupying the managerial rungs in its Counterterrorism Center than front-line analysts needed to do what has commonly come to be called connecting the dots — which might have sharpened our fix on, and facilitated the disruption of, the al Qaeda conspiracy that slaughtered 3,000 civilians within our shores.

The di today is too tactically driven by day-to-day and current intelligence reporting at the expense of deep analytic research and study. The pressure of daily intelligence demands has only increased since September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, as the Washington Post reported (“cia Feels Strain of Iraq and Al Qaeda,” November 17, 2002), “cia pulled about 160 analysts from their jobs watching global political, economic, and military trends and turned them into counterterrorism specialists.” Although cia keeps its work force numbers classified — in many instances to its detriment, because the public perception is that cia is a large agency despite the reality that it is relatively small in comparison to other government organizations — 160 people is a sizable chunk of its analytic ranks. Stripping the analytic ranks for the counterterrorism war may meet the crisis du jour, but it risks denying the United States the analytic capabilities needed to forecast the next battles and wars. Rather than being forward-leaning in analysis, cia is constantly playing catch-up. Indeed, one of the most critical functions of cia is strategic warning, a mission it is increasingly incapable of meeting. Without the benefits of strategic analytic warning, civilian policymakers will again be unable to take measures that might avert the deaths of American citizens.

Reforms need to be undertaken to ensure that analysts will be rewarded for the time and study required to be nationally or internationally recognized experts. cia management needs to protect its experts from the often trivial and parochial concerns that are obstacles to their recruitment and retention. The agency should be compelled to have a freer flow of experts to and from academe and the think tank world to keep di analysis fresh and competitive. As a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations recommended, “A greater flow of talented people into the agency from academia and business is essential. Greater provision ought to be made for lateral and mid-career entry as well as for short-term entry.”6 Mid- and senior-level hires of experts could bolster the di’s analysis and immediately infuse the organization with a respect and appreciation for the demands of research and analysis.

Such a talent infusion would move the di away from the bulk of its shallow tactical intelligence and toward a professional atmosphere that rewards analysts for creating cutting-edge research and strategic warning for policymakers.

If agency analysts are not allowed or encouraged by cia managers to develop into recognized experts and security obstacles continue to impede the influx of outside expertise into the di corridors, our seniormost policymakers would be best served by strategic intelligence conducted under the auspices of the National Intelligence Council. As a distinguished group of scholar-practitioners wisely recommended, under the nic, long-range assessments “would increasingly be directed by experts — in or out of government — who would manage integrated teams of substantive specialists on rotational assignment from policy departments, academia, think-tanks, and the Intelligence Community.”7 The nic today, however, is too small a staff to conduct much of its own research and analysis and too frequently serves as a mere clearinghouse for the analysis produced throughout the intelligence community.

Experts are needed to conduct strategic analysis the likes of which the U.S. failed to produce before September 11. Given the analytic and operational shortcomings discussed in this article, it is no surprise that cia failed to foresee with sufficient clarity the events of that day. With the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, the U.S. can ill afford to fail to redress these profound shortcomings in strategic intelligence.

1 For an excellent treatment of this problem, see Bruce D. Berkowitz and Allan E. Goodman, Best Truth: Intelligence in the Information Age (Yale University Press, 2000).

2 Report of the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community, “Preparing for the 21st Century: An Appraisal of U.S. Intelligence” (Government Printing Office, March 1, 1996). Hereafter referred to as the Brown Commission Report.

3 Joint Inquiry, Final Report, Part I, “Findings and Conclusions,” December 10, 2002. Joint Inquiry reports thus far released to the public are available at and, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence websites, respectively.

4 For a fuller analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of CIA intelligence in the Gulf war, see Richard L. Russell, “CIA’s Strategic Intelligence in Iraq,” Political Science Quarterly (Summer 2002).

5 Eleanor Hill Testimony, Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part I (September 18, 2002).

6 Maurice R. Greenberg and Richard N. Haass, eds., Making Intelligence Smarter: The Future of U.S. Intelligence (Council on Foreign Relations, 1996).

7 Allan E. Goodman, Gregory E. Treverton, and Philip Zelikow, Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on the Future of U.S. Intelligence (Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1996). See also the Brown Commission Report.

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