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Spying Trouble

Culture clashes among the FBI, CIA, and the military intelligence agencies are some of the problems cited in the intelligence community. This report looks at whether progress is being made.

SINCE 9-11, there have been numerous attempts to “fix” the U.S. intelligence apparatus. First, President Bush established the Terrorism Threat Integration Center (TTIC), which was supposed to help coordinate analysis among the intelligence community’s multiple players. Before that had time to coalesce, however, it was superseded by the National Counterterrorism Center, among other changes contained in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which also established the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

Amidst these legislative and presidential attempts to redraw reporting authority, many highly regarded Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel have departed en masse, some in protest over the appointment of Porter Goss, who himself was eased out in May. Meanwhile, the National Security Agency (NSA) has come under fire for harvesting records of Americans’ phone calls from telephone companies.

Nearly two years after passage of the reform act, it is unclear whether the changes have helped. Among the most frequently mentioned problems dogging the reform is the persistence of contrasting cultures among intelligence entities, especially between military and civilian intelligence agencies, and between members of the intelligence community and law enforcement in agencies that combine both missions. Other roadblocks to reform are a lack of access to policymakers, insufficient integration of intelligence, and difficulties in obtaining quality intelligence.

Sinking or Swimming

It’s never a good sign when someone compares you to the Titanic. Yet that “unsinkable” ocean liner was the metaphor of choice at the Intelcon conference, a recent gathering of the intelligence community. Several speakers and attendees likened the reform effort to rearranging deck chairs on the much-maligned ship. One highly placed ex-intelligence official at the Department of Defense (DoD), who requested that his comments not be for attribution, said that the reform act “rearranged the chairs, added a couple of chairs… and looked at who’s funding the chairs.” But it neglected to consider whether the floor beneath the chairs was solid.

To carry that metaphor further, one could contend that a large and ornate chair has been placed overlooking the others, next to the captain. That chair is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which trumps the CIA as the conduit between the intelligence community and the White House. Critics say that the ODNI merely creates another layer of bureaucracy.

“They [ODNI] have integrated almost nothing because they’re too busy staffing themselves,” says Dick Coffman, who served in major managerial and coordinator positions during 31 years with the CIA. The ODNI is “sucking the juice” out of the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community, he adds.

Instead of freeing intelligence officers to collect and analyze data, the ODNI is actually sapping the strength of the community by virtue of its demand for personnel, resources, and credibility. Plus, by superimposing the ODNI over the CIA, he says, the reform act is lowering the CIA on the intelligence hierarchy. As a result, what has long been considered the premiere all-source analytical arm of the intelligence community now may not be able to attract the same quality personnel.

Jason Klitenic, former deputy general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), counters that it’s far too early to assess the reform effort, likening such an exercise to judging the performance of a baseball pitcher after the first pitch of the game. (One might be a little disheartened, however, to think that we are still at the first pitch of the game five years after 9-11.)

While not commenting on the ODNI’s performance, Klitenic says that creating the ODNI made sense because the director of the CIA had a dual role as the director of central intelligence, so there was the temptation to favor CIA intelligence over other sources when speaking to the President. The DNI “is supposed to be more objective and a little removed from the 16 intelligence agencies,” he says.

“At best it’s premature to say [the ODNI has] now become another layer of bureaucracy,” agrees William Nolte, formerly the deputy assistant director of central intelligence at the CIA and once the director of training, chief of legislative affairs, and senior intelligence advisor at the NSA.

While critics point to a quickly growing staff that is estimated to soon reach 1,500 employees, Nolte points out that half of the staff is contributing substantively in analysis and coordination centers, not performing bureaucratic tasks. He also offers a brief history lesson, noting that the intelligence structure was constantly adjusted from the day the National Security Act was passed in 1947 until the Soviet Union fell in 1991.

But Coffman says reform must move quickly. “I take issue with anyone who says we have a lot of time to get this right. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Clashing Cultures

Among the various cultures existing in the intelligence community, two have been cited frequently as creating the most significant tension and rifts: the struggle between military and civilian agencies, and the dichotomy between the FBI’s role as an intelligence agency and its role as a law enforcement agency.

Spy vs. spy. The Defense Department’s intelligence role has troubled many observers. Even though the reform act endows the ODNI with authority over DoD agencies, the Pentagon remains a powerful player because the statute does not strip the Secretary of Defense of his authority over his intelligence agencies.

Many experts have expressed concern that the attempt to coordinate intelligence through the ODNI is being hampered by the fact that the DoD has been building up its own intelligence structure.

To address that concern, one expert, federal circuit court Judge Richard Posner, recommends spinning off the national intelligence agencies that operate as arms of the DoD and letting them become standalone agencies under the control of the ODNI. That would swing the balance of power back to the civilian sector. But it’s not likely to happen.

There is also concern that the animosity could worsen with the recent confirmation of Michael Hayden, an Air Force general and former director of the NSA, as director of the CIA. One former member of the intelligence community, who now works with the community as a contractor, predicts that Hayden won’t be embraced by the rank and file. “The CIA doesn’t want Hayden,” the contractor, who requested anonymity, says. “If you’re not an insider at the CIA, they’re not going to trust you.”

Further exacerbating the situation, he says, is the competition between the CIA and DoD for funding. Others, however, say the military-civilian tension has been overblown. “It’s more in the press than in reality,” comments Nolte.

Nor would the arrival of General Hayden at the CIA shift the balance of power to that agency, contend others. “Hayden being a general is not one of the top five problems right now,” says I.M. “Mac” Destler, director of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Security and Economic Policy. Destler notes that Hayden has a reputation as an independent thinker and could be an asset because he understands the terrain of military intelligence.

Bruce McIndoe, CEO of the intelligence firm iJET, who logged several years with the NSA, agrees. “He’s bright, listens, is energetic, and isn’t an ideologue,” he says. “He can bring people back,” he adds, referring to CIA officers who moved to the private sector when Porter Goss took the reins at the agency.

And the decision to appoint Stephen Kappes as number two at the CIA may be a stroke of genius. Kappes is a highly popular ex-Marine who left the agency after clashing with Goss. Even Coffman, who describes the CIA as demoralized, sees the move as encouraging; Kappes has the weight to bring back the many experienced agents who left in his wake if he’s given the proper authority, he says.

Two sides of a coin. Much has been made of the wall between the FBI’s investigative and intelligence functions, which some say hindered the Bureau from sniffing out the 9-11 plot. Members of the intelligence community say that intelligence continues to be subservient to investigation and law enforcement.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, John Gannon, who worked with the FBI frequently during his 24-year stint at the CIA, asserted that “the FBI is unacceptably behind…in developing a national intelligence collection and analytic capability.”

The problem, many say, is that FBI officers are rewarded for making arrests, not for gathering data for some amorphous, distant purpose. Its officers collect evidence of possible crimes, not possible future crimes. Thus, intelligence staff are treated like “second-class citizens,” according to Michael Collier, professor of national security and intelligence studies with American Military University.

The reform act directed the FBI to improve its intelligence capabilities through the development of a “national intelligence workforce.” In addition, the statutory language noted the importance of rotating intelligence officers through various agencies in the community, “in order to facilitate the widest possible understanding by such personnel of the variety of intelligence requirements, methods, users, and capabilities.”

The law further stated that service in more than one intelligence agency should be a condition for promotion to certain positions. With that mandate in mind, DNI John D. Negroponte, speaking earlier this year at the National Press Club, said that his plans for 2007 included getting all the agencies to require that individuals in intelligence have joint tours of duty before they get promoted to the senior intelligence service.

Quality of Intelligence

Collection, analysis, and dissemination are the bases of successful intelligence operations. The law reforming intelligence attempted to address each of these. For example, it created a National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) for centralized analysis and distribution; it set up a framework for the alternative analysis of intelligence; and it required President Bush to establish an Information Sharing Environment to foster sharing across all branches and levels of government.

Collection. Collection continues to be a problem, especially at the national level, Gannon told the Senate Judiciary Committee. In an effort to improve the situation, the National Clandestine Service (NCS) was created late last year within the ODNI and the CIA, reporting to the director of the CIA. The NCS was “established to set standards for human intelligence collection throughout the intelligence community,” said Negroponte.

The NCS replaced the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (formerly responsible for covert operations). The service is also charged with coordinating human intelligence operations, including with the FBI.

Within the FBI, another new organizational unit, the National Security Branch (NSB), has been established to bring together the FBI’s counterintelligence and counterterrorism divisions with its Directorate of Intelligence. The NSB, explained Negroponte, “has launched pilot programs in field offices across the country focused on national security training [and it is developing] asset-validation procedures to align with the intelligence community standards.”

In a recent progress report on the ODNI’s implementation of the reform act, Negroponte noted the creation of yet another intelligence body, the DNI Homeland Threat Task Force, which has been set up under the auspices of the NCTC “to bring together the community’s foreign and domestic components and integrate all intelligence on al Qaeda and homegrown Sunni extremist threats in the United States.”

When asked directly at the National Press Club whether progress has been made on intelligence collection, Negroponte’s answer was an unequivocal “yes.” Not all reports are as sanguine as Negroponte’s. “Looking at where we are, we should be asking why it is so hard for the FBI to develop a national intelligence capability,” Gannon told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Perhaps, he suggested, “we have asked too much of an otherwise-capable criminal-investigation agency.”

Foreign collection has its own troubles, says one agent who has worked closely with U.S. embassy personnel who screen foreign nationals walking in with tips. These informants, who may have an agenda, such as the need for a visa, tend to be in contact only with post security officers, who may not be able to discern what constitutes good intelligence. The bluster and misinformation could easily be flushed out by trained agents, he says.

Open-source data. The problem is not just with the lack of hard-to-procure intelligence, however. Just as with industrial espionage, a trained eye may be able to assemble disparate pieces of public information to spot patterns and intuit future intentions.

The reform act encourages collectors of intelligence to use more of this type of open-source information. Steps are being taken toward this goal. For example, Negroponte announced the creation of an open-source intelligence center at Langley late last year.

At the Intelcon conference, one highly placed member of the intelligence community affirmed that information available to the general public was a hugely important element of intelligence, and not just “frosting.” But, he said, the community still isn’t sufficiently availing itself of that valuable information.

Another player. Though one problem in the intelligence community is coordinating all the players, there is still value in having as many contributors as possible. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) became part of the community in February, pursuant to a joint designation put forth by Negroponte and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Former CIA analyst Larry Johnson sees a strong opportunity to improve intelligence collection (as well as analysis and dissemination) both domestically and internationally with the introduction of DEA into the intelligence community. “The best HUMINT [human intelligence] we have is with DEA,” he states.

While Johnson acknowledges that the DEA faces the same investigation/intelligence dichotomy as the FBI, he does not see that as a significant drawback. As a new member of the intelligence community, the agency will bring a lot of new data to the table.

A longtime DEA agent, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, adds that the dynamic between collectors and investigators at the DEA is radically different than at the FBI. Investigators treat intelligence agents as “important resources,” he says. He recommends that DEA agents pass off their contacts to CIA officers when appropriate.

Analysis. Collection is, of course, not an end in itself. If the dots of that data are not analyzed to see whether they create a noteworthy pattern, the effort will have been a waste of time. Congress and the President attempted to address this issue through the establishment of TTIC and now the NCTC. Is that working as intended? Again, it depends who you ask.

At the National Press Club, Negroponte cited “many efforts underway to improve our analytic prowess, our analytic skills, as well as verifying our sources of information.” He then elaborated on some of the changes he has implemented to ensure that analysis mistakes of the past would not be repeated.

For example, the ODNI has created the position of an analytic ombudsman “whose job is going to be basically to look at reports that we’ve done on very critical issues and to then really test them very severely with respect to the analytic tradecraft…and also to receive complaints from anywhere in the intelligence community,” said Negroponte.

Gregory Treverton, a senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation who previously worked for the first Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says that the appointment of an ombudsman was “the right thing to do.” That person can be “a focal point for spurring innovations,” he says, adding, however, that it’s too early to assess how well that person, or the function, is working.

The most important new force in terms of analysis of intelligence is the NCTC. In his progress report, Negroponte lauded some of the NCTC’s advances. In particular, Negroponte pointed out that he had directed the transfer of 72 analyst positions to the NCTC from other intelligence agencies, and that the NCTC has created a secure Web site that reaches more than 5,000 federal users.

But some observers see problems with the NCTC. For one, the center was intended to supersede the analytic function at the CIA, but the CIA’s center still exists and is instead competing with the NCTC. The DHS in its own reorganization last year also established an analytic center (the Office of Intelligence and Analysis), perhaps further undermining the NCTC’s goal of centralization. McIndoe sees another problem: the isolation of analysts, who toil alone in cubicles and have no access to sources and agents in the field. “We should let them learn the language and the culture,” he suggests, as well as talk to collectors and sources, which he says will lead to more informed and better-textured analysis.

Cycling intelligence agents between collection and analysis assignments isn’t feasible, however. “They’re too different,” says McIndoe. Analysts are typically introverted, he says, and would get frustrated with recruiting and developing sources over long periods of time.

Private sector role. One solution is turning more frequently to private-sector expertise. “The government has to be more agile in recruiting and coordinating external analysis with subject matter experts,” says McIndoe, whose company gathers intelligence to help clients monitor and mitigate risks. Right now, McIndoe says, the government reaches out for professional or academic expertise only sporadically, and only in fields where it believes it lacks depth.

In his recent summary on implementation of intelligence reform, Negroponte said that the National Intelligence Council, which provides the government with estimates of current situations and developing trends, has been reaching out to the private sector more “to secure the full range of alternative views and analytic insights needed by our customers.”

Some intelligence experts worry that the government is ceding too much responsibility to the private sector. A compromise might be the creation of a permanent public-private partnership, rather than handing off functions piecemeal to contractors. As one intelligence professional explained it at the Intelcon conference, such a partnership would combine the best of what each brings to the table: hiring, training, and mission setting by the government, and innovating and employing new technology by the private sector.

Sharing. In the sinking of the Titanic, the warnings about icebergs that lay in the ship’s path never made it from the radio room to the bridge. Similarly, the 9/11 Commission found that the CIA’s failure to pass along information about terrorists to the FBI was a factor in the government’s inability to uncover the plot.

As a result, cross-agency dissemination of intelligence has been another major focus of intelligence reform efforts, with some success. “Contrary to the common perception, we have already achieved several successes in key areas such as information sharing,” asserted Negroponte at the National Press Club.

To support that claim, Negroponte pointed out that “Information from 28 different systems flows into the NCTC.” He added that information sharing between intelligence groups was already taking place daily. “To keep counterterrorism officials throughout the government in constant contact, NCTC holds communitywide secure video teleconferences three times a day,” Negroponte said.

The reform act called for creation of an Intelligence Sharing Environment (ISE) to facilitate the give-and-take of terrorism-related information among federal, state, local, and tribal governments, the private sector, and foreign allies. But there seems to be little real substance to the ISE. An ODNI backgrounder describes the ISE as “not a new technology, database, or system; it will be created through further defining, changing, or establishing policies, procedures, cultures, and technologies.”

“More than four years after September 11, the nation still lacks the government-wide policies and processes that Congress called for,” investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported earlier this year.

Part of the problem is that the responsibility for creating these policies has bounced around among executive agencies, including DHS. It is now in the hands of the ODNI. That problem has been exacerbated by high turnover among homeland security personnel. For example, in January, ODNI had to replace its information-sharing program manager, who resigned. The position was refilled in March, but it set back the deadline for the ISE.

One Customs official who worked with many of the intelligence agencies says another problem is that agencies are unwilling to yield the power that comes with information. As a result, agencies build bridges between separate stovepipes rather than truly working together.

Maybe the solution, say some experts, is to move intelligence analysis to DHS. Since it is neither a law enforcement nor intelligence agency, it is less likely to engage in culture battles with other agencies and doesn’t need to keep information close to the vest.

Other experts have suggested a domestic intelligence agency along the lines of Britain’s MI5. But a domestic intelligence agency might do more harm than good. “I’m reluctant to go to this solution,” says University of Maryland’s Destler, who worries about creating yet another competing agency.

Perhaps more important than the formal structure is the human factor. If progress is ever to be made, agencies must get to know each other as people, says the Customs official who has worked with many agencies. He recommends that intelligence collectors and analysts from different agencies collaborate more, on the theory that working with rivals serves to humanize them, leading to true collaboration.

Whether the country follows this advice or another approach, the bottom line, says one ex-DEA official, is to believe that it’s achievable. “When the United States really wants to do something, the power is awesome.”

A can-do attitude is healthy. But it’s no substitute for real progress. “The salient fact is that, approaching five years after 9-11, we still do not have a domestic intelligence service that can collect effectively against the terrorist threat to the homeland or provide authoritative analysis of that threat,” testified Gannon.

Michael A. Gips is a senior editor at Security Management magazine.