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What Reforms Would Help U.S. Intelligence Agencies?

BY Quinn Bowman and Talea Miller  January 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST

CIA Headquarters, AFP/Getty Images

James Bamford

Author and journalist who specializes in the U.S. intelligence community. His latest book is “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 To The Eavesdropping On America,” which explores the National Security Agency.

How would you assess the effectiveness of changes made to intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks?

I think the intelligence community today is in far worse shape than it was pre-9/11. At the time of the terrorist attacks, the intelligence community was in possession of all the information they needed to discover the plot. The CIA knew the first two hijackers were being sent by bin Laden, had active U.S. visas, and flew into California. The National Security Agency also knew they were being sent by bin Laden, and even monitored their phone calls back to Yemen after arriving in the U.S. The problem was not communicating with each other or with the FBI or customs.

But following the attacks, instead of finding out who was responsible and holding them accountable, the Bush administration promoted them and then did its best to hide the mistakes. Then instead of using a scalpel, such as better training, to correct the problems, they threw enormous amounts of money at the intelligence community, created an even larger and less responsive bureaucracy with Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the NCTC, and opened the data floodgates with warrantless wiretapping, data mining, and watchlists containing upwards of a million names.

The end result is a bloated, gold-plated, incomprehensible system drowning in useless data. As with 9/11, the failure this time could have been avoided if just a few people did their jobs correctly.

What is one reform you would recommend that might improve information sharing among agencies working to prevent terrorist attacks?

Hold people accountable, streamline the system, increase the training, decrease the data.

Charles Allen

Former assistant director of central intelligence for collection at the CIA and former undersecretary for intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security

How would you assess the effectiveness of changes made to intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks?

It’s no secret that when the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act was proposed I was against that. Once it was passed and signed into law, I of course worked first as an assistant director of Central Intelligence, CIA and then as an under secretary of Homeland Security to make it work.

My issue is not with the National Counterterrorism Center, which I think has grown and matured significantly, my problem is overall with the structure of the Director of National Intelligence, which I think has grown much larger and broader than what I thought it would have at this time. I want a more streamlined, more transparent and more repeatable process for managing the broader community.

I think NCTC under Director Leiter has come together rather strongly. You have to remember there are dozens of CIA officers, FBI officers, I had officers there in the National Counterterrorism Center when I was at Homeland Security, so there is an enormous amount of sharing and a great deal of synergy that’s developed day after day, but the amount of information and the shortage of experienced analysts I think really is taking a toll on the process.

What is one reform you would recommend that might improve information sharing among agencies working to prevent terrorist attacks?

I believe the information sharing is never perfect, it can always be improved. Information can flow faster, we can share more sensitive information more rapidly, but I think a great deal of that works.

I really believe that what we need are better intelligence analysts and more experienced ones. I’m talking about having really experienced analysts looking at various forms of information, some from human sources, some from open source, some from jihadi Web sites and some from very sensitive technical intelligence and being able to correlate that as perfectly as you can. Let me tell you — that will never be absolutely perfect, but we can do better by having better trained analysts and more of those analysts.

 

Ray McGovern

Worked for the CIA from 1963-1990 as an analyst. He helped develop the president’s daily intelligence briefing for PresidentsRichard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. In 2003, he co-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

How would you assess the effectiveness of changes made to intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11th attacks?

The creation of the post of Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the 170,000-person Department of Homeland Security was the mother of all misguided panaceas.

The election of 2004 was just months away when the 9/11 report came out, and lawmakers and administration functionaries had the felt need to be seen to be doing something.

And they made things considerably worse. The 9/11 commissioners had been wailing over the fact that, in their words, “No one was in charge of coordination among intelligence agencies.” They were right, but sought a new “solution” to this where none was needed. By statute, the Director of Central Intelligence was responsible precisely for doing that as the principal intelligence adviser to the president (National Security Act of 1947).

This, indeed, was the main reason why [President Harry] Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency and put the DCI in charge not only of the CIA, but also of the entire intelligence community. The idea was to prevent another Pearl Harbor, where bits and pieces of intelligence lay around with the code-breakers, the Navy, the Army air corps, the FBI, embassy Tokyo, the people monitoring Radio Tokyo, etc., etc. with no central place aware of it all. Truman had learned that, had there been such a place, the forewarning of the Japanese attack would have been a no-brainer.

What is one reform you would recommend that might improve information sharing among agencies working to prevent terrorist attacks?

Hold accountable those responsible.

More “reform” is the last thing we need. The most effective thing would be to release the CIA Inspector General report on the intelligence community performance prior to 9/11.

Accountability is key. If there is no accountability, there is total freedom to screw up, and screw up royally, without any thought of possible personal consequences. Not only is it certain that we will face more terrorist attacks, but the keystone-cops nature of recent intelligence operations -whether in using cell phones in planning kidnappings in Italy, or in allowing suicide bombers access to CIA bases in Taliban-infested eastern Afghanistan – will continue.

Editor’s Note: Interviews were conducted via phone and e-mail and edited for clarity and length. This post was updated at 6:48pm ET.