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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

June 2004

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The author assesses the significance of the CIA director’s resignation and what it presages for the future of U. S. intelligence operations. He includes his recommendations in that regard. —Ed.

An Open Letter

That Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet should choose to resign on June 9 (effective in July) is understandable, particularly if he feels he has allowed his professional responsibilities, and ambitions, to compromise unduly the interests of his family. Still, it is unfair to his co-workers in the intelligence community, and to the American people, that he has chosen not to acknowledge publicly that failures of the intelligence system over which he has presided for seven years, and an unhealthy politicization of the intelligence process, are at the root of his decision. His doing so would facilitate improvement of the system.

Investigations currently underway into intelligence failures connected with the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and our country’s military intervention in Iraq will highlight weaknesses in leadership. While the quality of George Tenet’s leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency and the larger intelligence community undoubtedly is susceptible to review, the failure of a succession of Presidents, and the Congress, to insist on some restructuring and better management of our extraordinary intelligence resources is glaring.

Whereas current investigations will bring to light specific failures in the collection, analysis and distribution of actionable information, their findings and recommendations on structural and management issues will include little that is new. Earlier studies, including but not limited to one sponsored in 1996 by the Council on Foreign Relations, have called for improved product, particularly in analysis; strengthened intelligence leadership; urgent review of the division of effort among various intelligence agencies and better coordination between them. New would be if the President, any president, and the Congress, were to have the courage to insist on the immediate rationalization of an intelligence system which simply is not giving us optimal “bang for the buck” in an era characterized by increasingly complex global issues, including international terrorism.

The investigating commissions may call for the creation of a position for a Director of National Intelligence. Of course, that is what the DCI is meant to be, in addition to his/her role as chief executive of the Central Intelligence Agency. For the system to work as it should, the DCI, the president’s personal advisor on intelligence matters, needs control of intelligence budgets, most of which currently are under the control of the Secretary of Defense. The President needs to step in forcefully to rectify this situation, and the Congress needs to support him.

If need be, the functions of the DCI should be separated from those of the CIA Director. In that case, the President must have the courage to appoint a DCI who has strength of character and a solid understanding of intelligence matters, and who is non-ideological.

The world’s only superpower (for now) needs to maintain viable systems for the collection and analysis of information needed by policy makers to make sensible decisions in the national interest. Since some of those decisions relate to countries and regions which do not foster the free flow of information, we must maintain capabilities for clandestine collection of foreign intelligence by technical means and by espionage. But we must recognize that the quality of the product suffers with too many cooks stirring the broth. In analysis, an argument can be made for redundancy. It is good that the CIA, the State Department, the Defense Department and the FBI maintain independent and, we can hope, collegial analytical operations. In collection operations, redundancy and interagency rivalries are counterproductive, and very expensive.

George Tenet, his family, and the country are victims of the unrealistic expectation that any DCI could manage successfully an intelligence system grown too complex and too vulnerable to politicization. Against the background of his service on congressional oversight committees, Tenet should have known better. Now no one is in a better position than he to help the President and the Congress to make necessary corrections. We must hope that he will do so.


Robert Sargent is a retired U.S. diplomat whose overseas assignments included Belgium, Bulgaria, The Netherlands, Tunisia, Turkey, and Vietnam. He now lives and writes in the state of Maine.

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