American spy agencies set for huge overhaul

War on Terrorism: Intelligence
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The Independent US

Two months after the intelligence debacle of 11 September, a commission based in Washington is proposing a far-reaching shake-up of America's spying agencies that would greatly increase the influence of the CIA at the expense of the Pentagon.

The commission, appointed by the President, George Bush, and headed by Brent Scow-croft, his father's national security adviser, is calling for three main agencies currently run by the Pentagon to be placed directly under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Such a move would put all the levers of intelligence in the hands of the CIA's director, the man publicly identified with the successes and failings of the intelligence community – even though he is directly responsible for little more than 10 per cent of the $30bn annual intelligence budget.

The bulk goes on the "big three" agencies based in the suburban Washington area, which operate under the umbrella of the Pentagon. These are the National Security Agency, the US equivalent of the GCHQ at Cheltenham, which carries out global electronic eavesdropping, the National Reconnaissance Office which operates spy satellites, and the National Imagery and Mapping Office.

A further eight agencies are also busy in the field, including the FBI, responsible for anti-terrorism and US-based counterintelligence and long an arch-rival of the CIA.

The aim of the proposed overhaul is to reduce the inter-agency infighting that inevi-tably occurs. The short-term consequence, however, is likely to be an increase in bureaucratic warfare when the Pentagon seeks to defend its traditional turf.

Althought the Scowcroft commission has been at work since May, its findings have taken on a different complexion since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, which for all its resources and technical expertise the American intelligence establishment utterly failed to predict – a failure rivalling Pearl Harbor 60 years ago.

The weeks afterwards saw repeated demands for the head of George Tenet, the CIA director, but Mr Tenet has managed to defend his corner, arguing that the agency's problem lay in a lack rather than an excess of clout. He was rewarded by a specific declaration of support from Mr Bush, even though reports still surface of his imminent demise.

The reorganisation is understood to have the support of the influential Senate and House intelligence committees, who have long sought a more rational structure, making the CIA more accountable for all intelligence gathering activities. Mr Scowcroft's involvement will, moreover, ensure it gets close attention in the White House itself.

But the Pentagon will fight tooth and nail to retain control of the NSA, NRO and NIMO, which alone boast a combined budget of $15bn.

Each is headed by a senior military officer. Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, will argue that since most of the information gathered by the three is for tactical battle operations, they should continue to be based within the Pentagon.

The performance of each of them, however, has been criticised – none more strongly than the National Security Agency, accused of failing to keep up with modern electronic encryption technology, and of being unable to sift and evaluate the vast quantities of information it does manage to collect.

This leads in to the prime shortcoming exposed by the events of 11 September and which no amount of organisational juggling will rectify: the shortage of on-the-spot human intelligence, revealing not what an enemy is saying or doing, but what is in his mind.