How President Trump Can Make American Intelligence Great Again

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In 2010, when I was on the staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I attended a committee hearing on the North Korean nuclear program. That hearing epitomized the failure of post-9/11 reforms of U.S. intelligence and showed why the Trump administration must take aggressive steps to streamline American intelligence. Only then can it can return to being the great institution that provides the intelligence support our presidents need to protect our nation against national-security threats facing our nation today.

This process should start by sharply scaling back or eliminating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The lead witness at this hearing, seated at the center of a long witness table, was the ODNI North Korea issue manager. Seated next to him on each side were the ODNI issue manager for WMD proliferation and the director of the ODNI National Counterproliferation Center.

Joining them were the National Intelligence Council (NIC) officers for WMD proliferation and East Asia, both part of the ODNI. The CIA sent two witnesses, from its proliferation and North Korea–analysis offices. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the State Department, and the Department of Energy sent one witness each.

In addition to these 10 witnesses, other senior intelligence officials attended as backbenchers. There also was a gaggle of aides, handlers, and congressional liaison staffers. There were so many that they could not all fit into the hearing room.

The hearing seemed to go on forever, since the lead witness kept inviting all his colleagues to weigh in on every question asked by committee members. Some of the backbenchers spoke too. This became monotonous, since every witness (except for the one from DIA) parroted the same watered-down consensus view. Making this worse, the witnesses’ consensus statements were proven to be completely wrong a few months later.

This mob of intelligence officials spouting the same watered-down pablum exemplified why the reform of U.S. intelligence mandated by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) has been an utter failure. Although IRTPA created the position of the director of national intelligence as a new official to oversee all U.S. intelligence agencies, to ensure that these agencies would cooperate and share information, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has developed into a huge additional layer of bureaucracy, with far too many officials, that has made American intelligence analysis and collection less efficient and more risk-averse.

This is in part due to blowback from 9/11 and Iraq War intelligence failures, but also is a typical situation for a 70-year-old, multi-billion-dollar bureaucracy that has become complex and complacent. As is true with many established government bureaucracies, political factors and fear of being wrong weigh heavily on the operations of U.S. intelligence agencies. While America still has the world’s best and most capable intelligence service, it has lost the “can-do” intrepid spirit of its predecessor, the heroic World War II-era Office of Strategic Services.

The ODNI has made this problem much worse — not just because it is an additional layer of stifling bureaucracy, but also because it has become a 17th intelligence agency, with its own intelligence analysts, thousands of employees, and a huge — and ever growing — budget.

In 2007, House Intelligence Committee members were so disturbed about the rapid growth of the ODNI bureaucracy that they approved, on a bipartisan basis, an amendmentto the 2008 intelligence authorization bill to freeze the ODNI staff to the number working for it as of May 1, 2007. I drafted this amendment, which was co-sponsored by Congressmen Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) and Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.).

Hastings said at the time about this amendment:

We will not give you a blank check with which you could continue to grow a new bureaucracy before we know what you are doing with what you already have. A bigger bureaucracy does not make better intelligence.

Although Hastings was right, the Hastings/Rogers amendment was never implemented, since Congress did not pass an intelligence authorization bill that year. I hate to think how many times the ODNI staff has doubled since the House Intelligence Committee attempted to halt its growth in 2007.

The IRTPA reforms have hurt U.S. intelligence in other ways. The President’s Daily Brief (PDB), which used to be a lean and effective daily intelligence publication for the president produced by the CIA, has become an ODNI publication, weighed down with bureaucracy to make it “fair” so that all 17 intelligence organizations can participate and use it to publish articles justifying their budget requests to Congress.

The ODNI bureaucracy has also burdened intelligence agencies with unnecessary reports, regulations, and foreign travel by ODNI staff.

Aside from being an attempt to improve the sharing of information between intelligence agencies in the aftermath of the 9/11 intelligence failures, the ODNI also was created because some believed it is impossible for the CIA director to both manage the CIA and oversee the rest of the U.S. Intelligence Community.

I have long believed that these reasons are false. The CIA director, as the director of central intelligence (DCI), worked well for decades as the head of all U.S. intelligence agencies. The failure to share intelligence between U.S. intelligence agencies prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks could have been addressed without creating the DNI position and its huge and plodding bureaucracy. Moreover, intelligence agencies have failed to share crucial information despite the creation of the ODNI.

For example, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) issued a damning report in 2010 on how U.S. intelligence agencies failed to share information that could have prevented Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the 2009 “underwear bomber” — from boarding a plane from Europe that he almost blew up over the city of Detroit. The report found that U.S. intelligence agencies had the information to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane to the United States but had failed to cooperate with each other and share intelligence. According to the report, “no one agency saw itself as being responsible” for assessing such threats. The report identified 14 specific failures by intelligence agencies which included a bureaucratic process for adding names to terror watch lists that was too complicated and too rigid to address quickly emerging terrorist threats.

Concerning the argument that the CIA director can’t simultaneously manage the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community, if the president can manage the White House and the entire U.S. government, there’s no reason why we can’t have the CIA director in charge of his home agency and overseeing other U.S. intelligence agencies.

Eliminating the ODNI and rolling its duplicative organizations into the CIA would save at least $1 billion and could make U.S. intelligence more efficient and nimble. Such a move should include eliminating the huge number of redundant ODNI managers and officials such as those mentioned above.

More needs to be done to streamline U.S. intelligence and fix problems caused by earlier reforms and reorganizations.

For example, CIA director Brennan carried out a huge and controversial reorganization in 2015 that many critics believe created a confusing and bloated bureaucratic structure that will hurt long-term analysis and create security risks. This reorganization needs to be carefully reviewed by the next CIA director and possibly reversed.

There also are redundant units in multiple intelligence organizations that perform identical missions that should be streamlined. More of these crop up every year.

For example, U.S. intelligence agencies have increased their efforts to counter cyberwarfare over the last few years by creating large, separate organizations to address this issue. These include:

  • The ODNI Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, created in 2015.
  • The U.S. Cyber Command, created in 2009, to defend Department of Defense networks, systems and information, to defend the homeland against cyberattacks, and to provide support to military and contingency operations.
  • The Department of Homeland Security National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, created in 2009, to monitor cyber threats across government agencies and critical infrastructure.
  • The CIA Directorate of Digital Innovation, created in 2015.

There are many other examples of such duplication and redundancy, especially concerning counterterrorism.

To the greatest extent possible, these types of offices should be streamlined into a single inter-agency entity with one agency having the lead.

A reconstituted DCI should also take the lead in doing a better job of encouraging cooperation between intelligence agencies by pressing intelligence officers to take temporary assignments in other agencies. Having worked as an analyst with CIA and DIA, I know their analysis missions are very similar and would greatly benefit from closer collaboration, possibly by creating a joint CIA/DIA intelligence analyst service.

Managers and experts need to be brought in from outside the U.S. intelligence community to challenge the groupthink and analysis-by-committee that has gripped our intelligence agencies in the aftermath of the 9/11 and Iraq WMD intelligence failures. To deal with emerging security threats, we need more out-of-the-box and “competitive” analysis that provides policymakers with alternative assessments of global threats. There also is a great need for better strategic analysis of future threats.

U.S. intelligence agencies also need to improve their efforts to analysze and collect against new technological developments and challenges, including social media, big data, and hostile actors utilizing increasingly powerful encryption.

Outside managers and experts could also help counter the politicization of intelligence by intelligence officers who don’t like President Trump. This was a serious problem for previous Republican presidents. Recent leaks to the press by intelligence officers about Trump’s daily briefings suggest this problem has already resurfaced.

Implementing intelligence reforms to make U.S. intelligence agencies into the innovative and effective institution they once were will take strong leaders in top intelligence positions who will act independently and are not beholden to the intelligence community. These officials must have the full backing of the president.

President-elect Trump, by appointing Mike Pompeo as CIA director, General Mike Flynn as National Security advisor, and KT McFarland as deputy national security advisor, is off to an excellent start to implementing these kinds of intelligence reforms to make American intelligence great again.

Fred Fleitz

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