Dismantle the CIA?
What's behind Sen. Roberts' awful intelligence-reform proposal?
You'd think there must be something good about a CIA-reform proposal that's denounced by George Tenet and unnamed White House officials. But no, Sen. Pat Roberts' plan to overhaul the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy is a true stinker, every bit as bad as his establishment critics contend.
Roberts, a Kansas Republican, is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, so his pronouncements on such matters can't be casually dismissed. What, then, was he up to when he unveiled his scheme on last Sunday's Face the Nation?
Anyone with the slightest insight into the workings of Washington would know that his proposal has no chance of passage. Anyone who studies the "intelligence community" as much as Roberts does would also know—or should—that the proposal, if it were put into effect, would do more harm than good. So again, what's going on here?
Roberts called for creating a "national intelligence director" who would have "complete budget and personnel authority" over intelligence agencies throughout the federal government. This is pretty much what the 9/11 commission called for—and it's what President Bush has given only lip service to. (He's agreed to appoint someone with the title of national intelligence director but with none of the authority—in short, a glorified paper-pusher.)
But then Roberts' plan goes about six bridges too far. He would dismantle the CIA altogether. He would turn its clandestine shop (the directorate of operations) and its analytical shop (the directorate of intelligence) into separate, distinct agencies and place those agencies under the new national intelligence director. He would also strip the Pentagon of its current control over the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. And he would put the new national director in charge of intelligence units now working at the departments of State, Energy, Treasury, and Homeland Security.
Clearly, intelligence agencies are scattered too widely across the bureaucracy. The long list of units to be absorbed by the national director attests to this fact. However, placing them all under a single, centralized entity is not the answer; it will not make for better, or even better-coordinated, intelligence.
Let's look at what Roberts would do to the CIA. One problem with the current arrangement is that the spymasters in the directorate of operations and the analysts in the directorate of intelligence almost never talk with each other. The director of the CIA, who lords over them, could encourage or force them to work together, but he rarely does. Why? Because the director is but a temp at Langley; the heads of DO and DI—and their upper-echelon subordinates—are insiders, veterans, pros, and they value their quasi-independent status. The director has to work with them, can't afford to alienate them, and so steps back from confronting them. (Flynt Leverett, a former CIA senior analyst, told me that he has watched three CIA directors "flinch" from the prospect of trying to bring the two directorates together.)
Obviously, something has to be done about this situation; someone has to figure out a way to commingle these two branches without violating their morale and mores. One clear way not to do this is to chop them completely and formally apart. If the head of the CIA has a hard time coordinating the spies and the analysts when they're all in the same agency and working in the same building, how is some überhead going to do any better after the two branches have been split into autonomous agencies and he's sitting across town, simultaneously trying to manage a dozen other headaches?
There are other problems. It is an extremely bad idea, for instance, to lasso all intelligence analysts under one roof. Separate and competing analytical teams make for more open, creative, better analysis—and, therefore, wiser, more informed policy-making. (This assumes, of course, that the policy-makers haven't made up their minds ahead of time and then pressured the analysts into coming up with the "right" conclusions.)
Some of the resistance to Roberts' proposals—and to those of the 9/11 commission—stems from parochial interests. For instance, the secretary of defense currently controls three-quarters of the U.S. intelligence budget (in other words, about $30 billion, to say nothing of the enormous power that goes with it), and he doesn't want to give it up. However, it still isn't a good idea to separate the Pentagon from units involved in tactical military intelligence.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.