Tuesday, December 31, 2002

A Cozy Feel for a Bad Idea


December, 2002



It's said that a camel is a horse designed by committee and the Joint Congressional Committee investigating the 9/11 WTC attack has come up with a three-humper.
They propose a Cabinet-level position, a Director of National Intelligence, to whom all other agencies would be responsible.
It feels warm and cozy.
Instead of the CIA Director, the FBI Director and the NSA Director as scapegoats du jour, Congress and the President would at last have a cabinet level scapegoat---one guy to point at, and an appointee as well, as are all Cabinet members.
Nice touch.
A hotshot the minority party can denigrate for not doing the job. A Director of Directors, a Czar who changes every four or eight years and who can (with varying degrees of expertise) muddle up the works of agencies whose workings are largely secret and whose internal mechanisms have been developed over decades.
Well, of course they'll freeze him out, then wait him out. It's an appointment designed to fail.
There have been failures enough to go around in the post-game critique of 9/11, but it should be pointed out that Israel, with one of the most dedicated intelligence agencies extant, has been largely unable to stop a constant flow of suicide bombers. Suicide terrorists are damnably hard to stop.
It seems to me that the three agencies primarily charged with preventing another 9/11 are all sufficiently motivated, yet equally demoralized. Morale can only deteriorate further with a meddlesome Cabinet officer mucking about and learning the ropes, only to be replaced by another learner.
It feels good, particularly to legislators, who love nothing so much as an easy out. But it won't wash.
Part of the current intelligence problem is too much information. We have, by spy plane, satellite, informer and intercept, the capability to collect more information than can possibly by screened for usefulness. It pours in by the truckload, by the minute and much of it is 'disinformation.' Perhaps we collect too much merely because we can. Information pulled from such sources is overwhelming. When you know everything, essentially you know nothing, at least nothing of value. The various agencies involved are going to have to deal with this weakness, but they are best able to do it on their own and not under the 'guidance' of an amateur appointee.
But the main reason a coordination of agency focus isn't practicable, is that clandestine organizations are by nature compartmentalized, untrusting within their own departments, risk-takers and risk-runners who play their cards very close to the vest. Running agents, counter-agents, double and triple-agents isn't anything at all like managing a corporation. A compromised operation can undo decades of careful work, close entirely a fragile information chain and cost the lives of some very good people. Such operations are, understandably, unwilling to trust others with their assets---there's too much at risk. The identity of an asset is just too vulnerable to be trusted to anyone outside his or her immediate contact, for fear of exposure or, worse yet, the turning of an agent. Sifting the validity of information from an asset is a constant chore, a matter of judgment in an endless chess game of agents and counter-agents, information and disinformation. No successful operation is run by sharing intelligence, except at the very broadest of levels, not within and certainly not across agencies.
Yet the thrust of the Joint Congressional Committee's recommendation is to do just that, to require just that and to wrap it all under the control of a political appointee.
Impossible at best, disastrous at worst.
The CIA, FBI and NSA have done and are doing excellent work under terribly difficult conditions. It isn't enough. They're hindered by their own internal bureaucracies, individual egos, a certain amount of ass covering and the usual problem of ambition getting in the way of creativity. That's just a fact, a very common fact of human nature and these are human agencies. The agencies must be fixed and the fix will require trust, money, time and commitment, not an Intelligence Czar. The will be found partly in recruitment, in agencies badly mauled by public opinion and no longer enjoying a public image that supports recruitment. The fix is professionalism, self examination and a rebuilding of agent networks that have been neglected in the switch to hardware solutions.
Just as we've apparently abandoned the occupying foot-soldier to a smart-bomb war footing, so we've pretty much neglected the infiltrating agent in favor of the satellite. Both choices are probably a mistake, each of them motivated by the desire for success without risk, advantage without investment.
The public relations problem for the congress and the administration is that none of this is a quick fix and we are a quick fix nation. We're vulnerable, while we look more deeply into a problem we hadn't spent much money or assets on. Another major terrorist action may occur while we fix what we didn't think was broken. No one wants that, but just because a fact is ignored doesn't mean it ceases to be a fact.
Naming another "Czar" to get off that hook is disingenuous as well as counterproductive.