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October 2006

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Rejecting intelligence as fortunetelling and asserting the inevitability of strategic surprise, Professor Glenn Hastedt examines the obstacles that shaped the reorganization of the intelligence community when the 9/11 Commission advocated placing the community under the authority of a Director of National Intelligence. JLA

9/11 Intelligence Reform

We have now passed the five-year anniversary of September 11, 2001. For many younger Americans the terrorist attacks of that day promise to become a generational event of the magnitude of Pearl Harbor. It may in time define how they think about America's role in the world and the steps necessary to ensure its safety. Already 9/11 has helped elevate a seldom used concept, homeland security, to a place of prominence in the rhetoric of American foreign policy much as Pearl Harbor did, over one half century ago, for the concept of national security.

From the point of view of both homeland and national security, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 raise the classic questions about surprise: How did the Japanese catch the U.S. government unaware by such an attack and what should be done to prevent another in the future? Both events offer similar answers: Surprise happened because analysts failed to connect the dots, lacked needed intelligence resources, and fell short of communicating effectively with one another. Reorganization can help avoid surprise. In response to Pearl Harbor, Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency as part of the 1947 National Security Act. Following 9/11 the government created the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The two are linked in the minds of many. In signing the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, President George W. Bush called it “the most dramatic reform of our Nation's intelligence capabilities since Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947. Under this new law, our vast intelligence enterprise will become more unified, coordinated, and effective.”

Does this presidential rhetoric accord with reality? The argument laid out below demonstrates that it does not. The overall rhetoric accompanying the creation of the DNI marks, instead, the triumph of domestic over international politics. Given the logic of administrative reorganizations, the nature of presidential commissions, and the dynamics of the rhetorical presidency this is not an unexpected outcome. That outcome, moreover, raises serious questions about the extent to which the American government fully understands the potential for future surprise attacks and their consequences for future homeland security policy debates.

Creating the Position of Director of National Intelligence
The DNI represents the signature intelligence reform proposed by the presidential commission chaired by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton. Officially known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, the Commission got off to a rocky start. The White House had resisted its very creation in large part for fear that the Commission would lay blame at its doorstep just prior to the 2004 presidential election. The administration described such a commission as unnecessary because of an impending House-Senate inquiry. Families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks disagreed. They also regarded the terms of reference and the time frame of this investigation as too restrictive. They supported, instead, legislation to create a special commission introduced in December 2001 by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman. The House passed the necessary legislation in July 2002. The White House withheld official endorsement until October and created the Commission the following month.

Though originally designated as the Commission's co-chairs, Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell quickly withdrew under conflict of interest charges. The Commission held its first hearing in late January 2003 and by late July began publicly complaining of a lack of cooperation by the White House and Justice Department in making documents and personnel available. In October Kean threatened to issue subpoenas to gain the administration's cooperation. The timing of the Commission's final report also became a point of conflict. When the Commission sought an extension beyond its scheduled termination on May 27, 2004, the Bush administration objected but vigorous lobbying by the 9/11 families forced it to agree to a sixty-day extension in February 2004.

The Commission, which issued its report on July 22, 2004, identified four kinds of failures that contributed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and made forty-one recommendations. Its centerpiece reform proposal became creating the position of DNI with an office in the White House. This individual would oversee all-source national intelligence centers, serve as the president's primary intelligence advisor, manage the national intelligence program, and oversee the component agencies of the intelligence community. Included in the DNI's powers should be submitting a unified intelligence budget, appropriating funds to intelligence agencies, and setting personnel policies for the intelligence community. Although congressional leaders promised to move quickly to overhaul the intelligence community, the White House urged caution, and acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge all spoke against creating a DNI. With Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry endorsing creation of a DNI, the Bush administration found it necessary to follow suit but wanted to limit the DNI's authority to coordination of intelligence.

In October 2004 the House and Senate passed different pieces of legislation creating a DNI. The Senate bill most closely followed the recommendations of the Commission by granting broad powers to the DNI. The House bill reflected the White House's position. Although the Senate bill gave the DNI the power to “determine” the intelligence budget, for example, the House bill only gave the DNI the power to develop the budget and give guidance to the intelligence community. Similarly, the Senate version placed the CIA under the authority, direction and control of the DNI while the House version only stated that the CIA director would report to the DNI. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, was particularly adamant that the Pentagon not loose control over its intelligence budget and that the overall intelligence budget remain secret. In the end, behind the scenes negotiations produced a compromise bill acceptable to House Republicans and the White House. President Bush signed it into law on December 17, 2004.

Preventing Intelligence Failures
Much of the debate surrounding the ability of the DNI to prevent future intelligence failures focuses on the powers given and denied to this official. Viewed from the perspective of world politics and the literature on intelligence, this debate misses the mark for a very important reason: Intelligence failures are inevitable. Events in world politics do not move forward in neat readily identifiable bundles. They travel in odd shaped sizes, in bits and pieces, and at different speeds. Responding to this incoherent environment, policymakers and analysts try to distinguish signals of impending events from noise—the background clutter of meaningless information that is always present. It is only with the aid of hindsight that a clear pattern becomes evident. Until then the data may support several different interpretations of the future. Two other factors compound the problem of detecting signals in world politics: First, policymakers may change their minds. Second, they may try to deceive observers.

Confronted with this operating environment, Richard Betts in “Analysis, War, and Decision” observed that “the most crucial mistakes have seldom been made by collectors of raw information, occasionally by professionals who produce finished analysis, and most often by decision makers who consume the products of intelligence services.” Surprise succeeds despite warning because intelligence failures are political and psychological more often than organizational. Psychological failures occur because analysts, coping with the inherent uncertainty of evidence, impose their own logic upon it. For some that logic reflects a theoretical model, for others the notion that history repeats itself, and for still others little more than a gut feeling. The political failures occur because the assumptions underlying a country's foreign and defense policy, organizational vested interests, the rapid pace of crisis decision making, and the desire to protect personal reputations all conspire to downgrade the impact of inconvenient or unwanted information.

The Political Logic of Administrative Reorganization
If the sources of intelligence failures lack roots in organizational structure, why did the Commission possess such faith in creating the position of DNI? One part of the explanation lies in the logic of administrative reorganization. Begin by recognizing that major bureaucratic reorganizations—such as placing a new position atop the entire intelligence community, reducing the Director of Central Intelligence from being simultaneously head of the CIA and head of the intelligence community to just head of the CIA, and taking budgetary power away from the Pentagon where some 80% of the intelligence budget lies—represent far from routine occurrences. As John T. S. Keeler revealed in “Opening the Window for Reform,” overcoming the many political and institutional obstacles that stand in the way of significant reform requires a special set of circumstances. An important if not indispensable ingredient is the creation of a reform window that permits a restructuring to proceed. This typically involves the onset of a crisis because crises bring with them a sense of fear and urgency that uproots and pushes aside the normal dynamics of policy making. At the same time, reform windows opened by a crisis unaccompanied by a large-scale electoral victory for the advocates of reform often produce hollow mandates that only provide a temporary and ineffective political base for reform.

Once opened, administrative reform windows operate in predictable ways, according to James March and Johan Olson (“Organizing Political Life”) and Erik Stern (“Crisis and Learning”). Most fundamentally, there is a pressure for action. In searching for a reorganization plan that demonstrates a commitment to action, policymakers are driven by two imperatives. The first is restricting the flow of information coming to them. In consequence, they may too quickly embrace a historical analogy or point of reference for generating the reorganization plan while paying little attention to its fit or relevance to the problem at hand. The second imperative is to centralize political and administrative control in the organization. Being too decentralized, bureaucracies need “strong managerial leadership, clear lines of authority and responsibility, manageable spans of control, meritocratic personnel procedures, and the utilization of modern techniques for management.” In moving forward, administrative reformers race against the emergence of two competing forces: the fleeting attention of both the public and the policymakers and the reemergence of political considerations in restructuring the organization.

By the time the Commission, created 603 days after the 9/11 attacks, released its report in July 2004, the reform window opened in late 2001 had largely closed. Compare that delay to the Roberts Commission created thirty-seven days after Pearl Harbor. The war in Afghanistan also blunted political pressures for any immediate inquiry into the events leading up to 9/11. After a very successful military campaign there, the Bush administration resisted pressures to create an independent commission and acceded only under public pressure from the families of the 9/11 victims. This pattern of resisting and then bending to public pressure repeated itself with the proposal to create a DNI. The timing of the report also minimized its electoral impact.

The Commission's call for a strong DNI located in the White House is fully consistent with the logic of a centralized management approach to reorganization. That proposal created clear lines of accountability and established a direct link to the president. The countering, and politically inspired, opposition to major reorganization became evident in the desire of the Bush administration and key Republican congressional leaders with close ties to the Pentagon to weaken the DNI. The administrative-based logic of creating a DNI also reflects the presence of a limited search for information because many earlier intelligence reform studies carried out by presidential commissions had emphasized the need for more centralized managerial and budgetary control within the intelligence community.

Alfred Cumming's history of The Position of Director of National Intelligence provides useful background: The Clark Task Force, which wrote the intelligence section for the second Hoover Commission in 1954, called for the Director of Central Intelligence to concentrate on coordinating community-level intelligence efforts and leave the day-to-day administration of the CIA to an assistant. The 1971 Schlesinger Report explicitly called for creating a DNI. In 1992 Senator David Boren and Rep. David McCurdy, who chaired the Senate and House Select Intelligence Committees, introduced legislation calling for a DNI with the power to control the intelligence budget. In December 2002 the congressional inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks called for a cabinet-level DNI subject to Senate confirmation.

The 9/11 Commission became, therefore, neither the first nor the last presidential commission to examine the analytic and predictive performance of the intelligence community and make recommendations for its improvement. The first Hoover Commission commented upon the community's workings in 1948, barely after the CIA's creation and years before the term “intelligence community” came into usage. After the 9/11 Commission completed its work, President George W. Bush established the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, popularly known as the WMD Commission.

The Political Logic of Presidential Commissions & the Rhetorical Presidency
The writings of David Flitner, Jr., Thomas Wolanin, and Amy Zegart demonstrate that presidential commissions have become a readily recognizable feature of the American political landscape. In Presidential Commissions and National Security, Kenneth Kitts revealed that a multitude of typologies and frameworks characterize their work. First, the commissions often educate. This typically involves “demythologizing” a policy problem and legitimizing the need for government action. Second, political commissions may provide symbolic assurance to the public that the government is aware of the problem and taking steps to deal with it. Here the focus is not on the problem per se but placing the government's response in a positive light. Third, commissions can solve problems and analyze policy. As a source of information and insight, commissions may allow presidents to by-pass vested interests and reach out for new ideas. Fourth, presidential commissions may serve as instruments of conflict management allowing presidents to build a consensus inside and outside the government in support of their preferred policy.

Overall evaluations of how well presidential commissions accomplish these tasks and their impact diverge significantly. One view, expressed here by Senator Ted Kennedy, holds that they are “so many Jiminy crickets chirping in the ears of deaf Presidents, deaf Congressmen, and perhaps a deaf public.” At the other end of the continuum, Thomas Cronin in “On the Separation of Brain and State” holds that they are “generally created by presidents who seriously want policy advice.”

The history of the 9/11 Commission suggests that the latter view is incorrect. President Bush resisted its creation, and his administration displayed little interest in cooperating with its inquiry. These qualities also suggest that the administration did not regard the Commission as a means to educate the public about the problem of terrorism or strategic surprise. Writing for the Washington Post, Dan Eggen reinforced that perception when he revealed that Commission members believed the Pentagon had deceived them about its response to the 9/11 attacks, a belief held so strongly as to prompt them to consider bringing it to the attention of the Justice Department for criminal investigation.

The evidence also argues against seeing the Commission as a generator of new ideas. Its recommendation to create a DNI, even though resisted by the White House, drew upon and followed closely a well-established and ongoing debate among intelligence reformers. The administration's dealings with the Commission and Congress also challenge seeing the Commission as an agent of conflict management. Instead of serving as a means of compromise, its recommendations became the source of tension. In October 2004, with the House and Senate having passed competing pieces of legislation and in stalemate over how to proceed, the families of the 9/11 victims appealed to President Bush to intercede in favor of the Senate's bill creating a stronger DNI. He did not. Republican opposition in the House remained firm, forcing House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to pull the bill from the docket in late November. The bill that emerged represented a compromise among Republicans and ultimately included legislation that contained anti-immigration provisions championed by Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who had opposed the 9/11 legislation.

The most compelling interpretation of the Commission's function stems from the primary purpose served by its recommendations: calming the public's fears and assuring it that the government had begun to deal with the threat of another terrorist surprise attack on the United States. The Bush administration had feared that the Commission would be critical of its pre-9/11 policies, and those fears were not entirely unfounded. The Commission's report did criticize the Bush administration for failing to grasp the gravity of the threat from al-Qaeda but also leveled the same criticism against the Clinton administration, thereby softening the blow. In its immediate response to the release of the Commission's report, the administration appeared decidedly noncommittal about the merits of the Commission's recommendations, although Bush did characterize the report as “an important tool in mapping future strategies against terrorism.” Overall, he described the Commission's work as “serious and comprehensive” and its recommendations as “thoughtful.”

In the judgment of Michael Janofsky and David Halfinger, the centerpiece of Bush's response to the release of the Commission's report represented a rhetorical effort to redefine the issue in a manner that reflected more favorably upon the administration's policies. Bush noted that his administration had already taken many of the actions called for by the Commission. In particular he cited military action in Afghanistan and Iraq and the disruption of financial networks used by terrorist groups. He continued that “the commission's recommendations are consistent with the strategy my administration is following to address these failings and win the war on terror.” Overall he asserted that while work remained to be done, the United States and the world were a safer place because of what his administration had done.

In responding in this fashion, Bush's rhetoric did not simply reflect the political calculations of a single president to a particular policy issue but a broader trend at work in American politics, one referred to by Mary Stuckey and Frederick Antczak as the emergence of the rhetorical presidency. A central characteristic of the rhetorical presidency is the advent of presidential leadership as interpretation. Presidential statements have become a simplifying interpretative prism through which the meaning and significance of complex events and issues become understandable to the American public. As originally viewed by Woodrow Wilson, interpretive presidential leadership allowed presidents to connect directly with the citizenry and educate it. As explained by Jeffrey Tulis in The Rhetorical Presidency, Wilson's own experience indicates one of the principal dangers of such a leadership strategy. Rather than serve as an instrument of education, the rhetorical presidency has the potential for short-circuiting the deliberative process, resulting in legislation (or its absence) that may accord with popular sentiment but fail to address the true nature of the problem under consideration.

Education along with problem solving and policy analysis may not have been on President Bush's agenda, but they were very much on the minds of the Commission's members. Unlike typical commissions, the 9/11 Commission did not fade away. Its members found private funding to continue through the remainder of 2005 as a watchdog body, the Public Discourse Project, and they issued reports on the administration's follow through on their recommendations.

While the Commission's report card gave the administration a B for creating a DNI, John Lehman asserted publicly in the Washington Post that there had been “no real action to fix our government's most glaring failure: the dysfunctional intelligence bureaucracies whose incompetence exposed us to surprise attack. Not a single person has been disciplined, and most have been promoted.” During his brief stay as Director of Central Intelligence, Peter Goss publicly stated that he would not reprimand any CIA analyst for mistakes made leading up to the Iraq War for fear of further damaging agency morale. Even before creation of the DNI, intelligence agencies took steps to protect their budgets. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who publicly opposed creating that office, announced he would set up an Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence who would have authority over all Defense Department Intelligence units and their budgets. The FBI moved 96 percent of its intelligence budget into units not under the DNI's jurisdiction.

9/11 II?
Does the creation of a DNI prevent or at least significantly reduce the possibility of another surprise terrorist attack? The differing positions taken by both the Bush administration and its critics on the Commission miss the mark and bring unrecognized risks. In the judgment of the Bush administration, its policies have significantly reduced the danger of another terrorist attack on United States soil. To bolster this claim, it periodically reveals instances of foiled terrorist plots. In July 2006, for example, the FBI announced that it had broken up, in its early stages, a plan to attack New York City transit tunnels under the Hudson River, and the month before the FBI announced it had thwarted a Miami-based terrorist plan to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago. Other highly publicized terrorist threats were directed at the New York City subway systems and a tunnel near Baltimore.

The twin dangers here are complacency followed by recrimination and reprisals against the intelligence community. Complacency results from a false sense of accomplishment undiminished by later revelations questioning the integrity of the supporting data used. Complacency has its roots in the manner in which intelligence is defined. Three problems stand out: First, intelligence is being viewed almost exclusively in a law enforcement context rather than a warning context. The purpose of intelligence in law enforcement is to stop an illegal act. The purpose of warning intelligence is to alert policymakers to a dangerous situation so that it can be followed more closely and countering action taken. A spy is arrested and charged with espionage from a law enforcement perspective. From a warning perspective, a spy is followed and observed in hopes that he or she will lead authorities to other spies or their handlers so that the total scope of the problem becomes clear.

Second, to the extent that intelligence is viewed in a warning context there has yet to be a systematic development of a terrorist warning system. During the Cold War, the United States developed a warning system to alert policymakers to an impending military action. The system included evidence of troop build-ups, domestic political maneuvering, civil unrest, and diplomatic actions such as the recall of ambassadors. The more of these indicators observed the greater the perceived danger. The situation today appears quite different. According to Arthur Hulnick (“Indications and Warning for Homeland Security”) no equivalent warning system appears to exist for judging the threat posed by terrorist groups. As more evidence emerged, the Sears Tower and New York City transit tunnel attacks sounded like fantasy and loud talk. Business disputes that produced false reporting account for the phony Baltimore harbor tunnel and New York City subway attacks. This is not to say that these threats did not merit investigation, but the examples do raise questions about how their discovery made the United States any safer. At the same time, the London Subways bombings and the thwarted attempt to bring liquid explosive devices on board transatlantic flights out of London to the United States make clear that real terrorist threats do exist.

Third, complacency also has roots in a view of intelligence that equates it with fortunetelling. In “Estimates and Fortunetelling in Intelligence Work,” Shlomo Gazit described as fortunetelling predicting the occurrence of a specific event on a specific day in the distant future. Given the inherent potential for surprise in world politics, governments cannot expect intelligence agencies to do this, and doing so is not an appropriate standard against which to judge their work. What intelligence can and should do is “lay out alternative outcomes and indicate the possible milestones or turning points which would help in deciding the outcome.” The nearer in time to the occurrence of an event the more can be expected of intelligence, but then the key to success increasingly becomes the state of preparations to deal with an event. As Hurricane Katrina revealed, warning without preparation provides little security.

The danger of complacency is not a risk for critics of the Bush administration who argue its organizational reforms have not gone far enough. The risk inherent in their criticism is subtle. They have a misplaced faith in the ability of organizational changes to prevent intelligence failures, which leads them to pursue reforms that cannot deliver on their promise. There is no doubt that organizational factors contributed to the 9/11 intelligence failures. Prominently numbered among them are communication problems inside and between intelligence organizations, a reliance on inadequate and outmoded conceptual frameworks for analyzing information, and limited human intelligence resources directed at gathering information on terrorism.

As already noted, at their root intelligence failures result from the incoherent environment in which analysts must try to distinguish signals from noise, take account of the fact that policymakers change their minds or are uncertain what they will do, and cut through attempts at deception. Organizational reforms can improve performance but not totally prevent surprise. No universal formula exists for organizing intelligence, making learning from the past or the experiences of other countries difficult. Stung by Israel's failure to anticipate the onset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Agranat Commission proposed a series of changes that in many respects copied the American intelligence system. In addition to creating a DNI, the Commission also called for the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center that would bring all relevant information and analysis of intelligence together in one place. William Casey, as Director of Central Intelligence, established America's first such joint center in 1986. As charges of politicizing intelligence became frequent during his tenure, simply creating analytic centers provides no guarantee of improved intelligence analysis.

Organizational reforms may also make a situation worse, precisely what some feared might result from creating the DNI in its initial form. Lehman, for one, expressed concern that the DNI would simply add another layer of bureaucracy on the intelligence community and thereby make effective management even more difficult. Rather than a powerful and lean staff with agency heads reporting to one of three deputy directors, the Office of the DNI contained one principal deputy, four deputies, three associate deputies and more than nineteen assistant deputies. Evidence that this reorganization represented no panacea for improving control over intelligence came with Porter Goss's surprise resignation as head of the CIA on May 5, 2005. Contributing to his decision were differences with DNI John Negroponte over plans to move intelligence analysts from the CIA's counterterrorism staff to other intelligence agencies. On becoming head of the CIA on September 24, 2004, Goss's principal charge had been to bring it under control after the Bush administration had come to view it as the source of a constant stream of hostile intelligence leaks.

None of this is to cast doubt on the worth of undertaking organizational reforms in pursuit of better intelligence. The chances of achieving that goal become much greater, however, if those who work in the organizations embrace the reforms rather than having them imposed externally with little or no buy-in. Such reforms alone will not, moreover, prevent surprise. Just as important as organizational reforms is altering the attitudes of policymakers. In Improving CIA Analytic Performance, Jack Davis, a retired intelligence official, suggests the special importance of making senior policymakers partly responsible for the quality of warning intelligence instead of simply its passive recipients. They need to become more involved in the selection of topics, allocation of resources, standard setting, and assessment of threats. They must also become more interested in the reasoning behind intelligence estimates and less inclined to reward most whatever intelligence reaches them first.

The need for attitudinal change also applies among congressional overseers of intelligence. Virtually from the creation of the intelligence community, Congress has been reluctant to receive information on the activities of the intelligence community. Matters have improved little over time. Lock Johnson's study, “Governing in the Absence of Angels,” concluded that the story of congressional oversight since 1975 has been one of “discontinuous motivation, ad hoc responses to scandals, and reliance on the initiatives of just a few members of Congress—mainly the occasional dedicated chair—to carry the burden.” Reporting for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus found that no more than six senators and a handful of representatives read more than the five-page executive summary of the ninety-two-page National Intelligence Estimate requested by the Senate Intelligence Committee prior to the Iraq War. Finally, while never totally absent from the workings of the intelligence committees, partisanship has become more pronounced recently. Not only have competing political agendas grown increasingly evident in investigations and hearings on intelligence matters, Gregory McCarthy's “GOP Oversight of Intelligence in the Clinton Era” reported charges about congressional attempts to use the intelligence budget to fund their pet projects.

The intelligence reform dialogue that has taken place since 9/11 holds great peril for the U. S. intelligence community and U. S. security in general. The dialogue constituted a lost opportunity to inform and educate the American public about why surprise happens in world politics and the potential for and limitations of attempts to deal with it. Both the solution endorsed, principally creating a DNI, and critiques of that solution failed to acknowledge the deeper sources of strategic surprise and the limitations of organizational reforms for preventing intelligence failures. When a failure does occur the danger exists that the public and policymakers will turn on the intelligence community with calls either for dissolving it or for its radical reconstruction. Blame will be placed squarely on the failure of the 9/11 reorganization efforts. Perhaps such proposals will have merit but the solutions will likely fall far short of perfecting the silver bullet that prevents surprise. Instead it will set in motion a repetition of the dynamics outlined here.

Glenn Hastedt received his PhD in Political Science from Indiana University. He currently is professor and chair of the Justice Studies major. He is the author of American Foreign Policy, Past, Present, Future (6th ed, Prentice Hall). His most recent articles on intelligence have appeared in Intelligence and National Security and Defense Intellligence Journal.

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