A savage indictment of bickering and creaking bureaucracy

Click to follow
The Independent US

In the end, the third cut was the unkindest for America's reeling intelligence services. First came a Senate Committee report, damning the CIA for its performance on Iraq. Then we read the elegantly written conclusions of the 11 September Commission, detailing the failings that allowed the worst terrorist attack in modern times to happen.

In the end, the third cut was the unkindest for America's reeling intelligence services. First came a Senate Committee report, damning the CIA for its performance on Iraq. Then we read the elegantly written conclusions of the 11 September Commission, detailing the failings that allowed the worst terrorist attack in modern times to happen.

But even these pale beside the broadside delivered yesterday by the bipartisan commission created by President George Bush to examine the debacle of Iraq and its imagined weapons of mass destruction.

The question now is: will it make a difference? "We will correct what needs to be fixed," President Bush promised yesterday, as he was formally presented with the 700-page report (more than a third of which is classified).

In truth, however, the failings so savagely listed by the blandly named Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction have long been known, and no previous attempt to correct them has yet succeeded.

The fact is that America's "intelligence community" is less a community than a collection of 15 fragmented and often feuding fiefdoms. Nominally, the boss of the CIA, the director of central intelligence, is in charge of things. In reality, eight of the 15 agencies are controlled by the Pentagon, as is 80 per cent of the estimated annual US intelligence budget of $35bn - mainly through the electronic eavesdropping and interception organisation, the National Security Agency, America's far larger equivalent of Britain's GCHQ.

Add to that the formidable Donald Rumsfeld, the current Defence Secretary and an unmatched bureaucratic turf warrior, and it is easy to see the limits to the CIA's writ. Nor does this take account of the historic rivalries of the CIA and the FBI which - at least until 11 September - so hampered the struggle against al-Qa'ida and international terrorism.

Ah yes, say some intelligence specialists, but many of the failings identified by the bipartisan commission are already being tackled. In the aftermath of the Iraq debacle, everyone realises that US intelligence must improve its human sources, so-called "Humint". Everyone acknowledges too that the historic barriers between the various fiefdoms must be broken down.

Everyone knows, as the commission declares, that there "must be true cultural change within the [intelligence] community." And yet, the report gloomily concludes, the many extremely talented and dedicated individuals in the intelligence apparatus "seem to be working harder and harder just to maintain a status quo that is increasingly irrelevant to the new challenges presented by weapons of mass destruction."

In fairness, and despite his initial reluctance to sanction major public investigations into either 11 September or Iraq's missing WMD, Mr Bush has introduced major changes. Most notably, he has created a new Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI), whose boss will theoretically take the intelligence community by the scruff of its collective neck. There will also be a new national counter-terrorism centre, to co- ordinate the efforts of the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, itself less than three years old.

But many doubt that even a man as able as John Negroponte, former US ambassador to the United Nations and Iraq and now the first head of the DNI, will make much difference - even with a deputy as respected as Michael Hayden, a previous head of the NSA. The fear is that the DNI will merely add another layer to a system already creaking under the weight of bureaucracy. Mr Negroponte's brief, moreover, is ambiguous; as the report dryly notes, "his authorities are far from absolute." Mr Negroponte, for instance, will henceforth deliver the famous "PDB" or President's Daily Briefing on intelligence that has been the job of the CIA director.

But while he will be in charge of the annual intelligence budget, the bill creating the DNI makes it clear that the prerogatives of individual Cabinet Secretaries (for which read Donald Rumsfeld, who waged a rearguard and predictably successful action against efforts to reduce Pentagon independence) will remain intact. As recipes go for competing command centres, this one can hardly be bettered. Across at the CIA, the arch villain of the piece, the picture is no better. The agency has rarely been more demoralised. Following the devastating 1994 case of the Soviet/Russian mole Aldrich Ames, its failure to predict the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, the 11 September terrorist attacks, and now the egregious misjudgements of Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities, it has been "dead wrong" in almost every respect.

George Tenet, its previous boss, has departed, compensated for his blunderings by the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honour. By all accounts his replacement, Porter Goss, formerly head of the House Intelligence Committee, has hardly improved the situation. Some 30 top CIA people have been sacked, while Mr Goss's aides, most of them former top guns from Capitol Hill with scant experience of the spooks' world, have taken over the levers of power.

Mr Goss himself is a former covert operative for the agency. But he has publicly professed himself "a little amazed by his workload ... too much for this mortal". The CIA may have asked for this manhandling, but clearly any benefits will take some time to become visible.

But the CIA is not the only culprit, nor the only agency driven by "pack thinking" into the gigantic mistake over Iraq. The Defence Intelligence Agency for instance, the Pentagon's main in-house intelligence arm, is blamed for not being more sceptical of the human source code-named "Curveball" who provided false information on Saddam's supposed biological weapons activities.

That is an understatement. As is now well known, the Pentagon - via another ad-hoc group called the Office for Special Plans, set up by its No 3 official Douglas Feith - gathered only information that suited its thesis that Saddam was a menace to all humanity. This "intelligence" was then "stove- piped", as the jargon has it, to other true believers, notably Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Yesterday's report urges more "devil's advocacy" in the analysis of intelligence, with more importance being attached to dissenting views. It deplores the previous practice of "layering" - not unknown in Britain's treatment of intelligence - whereby successive assessments of a threat dropped the caveats of previous assessments as they passed through the intelligence apparatus on their way to the White House.

The politicians may not have exerted explicit pressure to have conclusions slanted as they wished. But they did not need to. The CIA and the rest intuited what was wanted, and duly delivered. The commission makes it clear that even a DNI with genuine power to knock heads will not suffice, despite the aid of new-fangled devices such as "mission managers", "target development boards", and a "human intelligence innovation center" to simultaneously focus and broaden the modus operandi of the US intelligence community.

In the end, as the US in the past has so often failed to realise, spying depends on people. The stinging, eminently justified, criticism delivered yesterday will yield fruit not through fancy new paradigms and organigrams - but only if Mr Negroponte imposes his will, if the analysts give voice to the nagging doubts within, and if politicians realise that intelligence is, at best, a very imperfect art. That is the real culture change that American intelligence needs.