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Intelligence Reform: Our National Security Depends on It

After two of the most significant intelligence failures in recent history—the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States (US) and faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq—Congress is finally poised to reform and overhaul the nation’s outdated intelligence structure.  

Both the House and Senate have passed legislation, stemming from the recommendations of the September 11 Commission, which call for creating a National Intelligence Director with authority over all 15 agencies in the Intelligence Community.  But, how much authority to give the National Intelligence Director is a matter of ongoing and contentious debate.      

As the House-Senate conference negotiations continue, we must be ever mindful of the central objectives of reform and focus on how best to achieve changes that truly strengthen and improve our intelligence without creating unnecessary bureaucracies or reducing support for the Department of Defense—the largest consumer of intelligence.  

First and foremost, we must create a strong National Intelligence Director with unified control over budgets and personnel. Under the current structure, there is no single individual in charge and accountable. The result is a fragmented arrangement of budget, personnel, and tasking authorities that inhibits information sharing and hinders effective coordination of operations. This lack of consolidated authority has undercut the ability of the Intelligence Community to function as a true community and, more specifically, has prevented the United States from bringing all of its intelligence, military, and law enforcement resources to bear against al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups, both at home and abroad.  

Second, as we establish and implement far-reaching organizational changes, we must remain cognizant of the needs of the Department of Defense and military operations.  Our war fighters must know that the intelligence they require on the battlefield will be there, and military planners must know that they will be supported by the intelligence collection platforms of the future. Only by closely coordinating our tactical and national systems can the National Intelligence Director and the Secretary of Defense effectively meet these critical needs.

To that end, the National Intelligence Director should control the budget, personnel and tasking of the three national intelligence agencies currently under the Pentagon’s control—the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. However, day-to-day operational control over these three agencies—which serve essential combat support functions inside the Pentagon—must be maintained by the Secretary of Defense. Ultimately, a better run Intelligence Community under the National Intelligence Director will mean a better product for consumers of intelligence, military and non-military alike.

Third, in order to improve overall coordination and focus, we need to take a new, more joint approach to intelligence. We should create a National Counterterrorism Center to join all US counterterrorism efforts, foreign and domestic. The head of this center should have the authority to bring to bear all capabilities—intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic, homeland security and military resources—in the fight against terrorist threats.  We have historically drawn an artificial distinction between our efforts here and abroad, a distinction the terrorists ignore. Yet, an effective counterterrorism effort requires true integration of these programs as well as clear responsibility and lines of authority.

A National Counterterrorism Center will serve as a model for the creation of other national intelligence centers to deal with comparably unique threats now, and as they emerge in the future. Issues such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the continuing threat from North Korea, or the volatile standoff between India and Pakistan are all candidates for such centers, and the National Intelligence Director should have the flexibility to define and establish the center structure to match the times.    

Fourth, we need to create an Intelligence Reserve Corps, similar to the military reserves, so we can recruit skilled former employees to help deal with any episodic shortage of intelligence analysts and officers when the pace of Intelligence Community operations increases to support military deployments or other crises. When the Intelligence Community is stretched thin, as currently is the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, important intelligence work elsewhere may suffer. The threats we face today are multiple and widespread; we cannot afford to miss the next Indian or Pakistani nuclear test or North Korean missile launch, much less neglect potential Iranian WMD development. 

Fifth, we must take specific steps to ensure greater independence, objectivity and accountability in the Intelligence Community. The fact is the Intelligence Community’s credibility has been badly tainted by September 11 and the mistakes leading up to the war in Iraq. One way to restore that credibility is to create an Intelligence Community Ombudsman to address concerns raised by analysts about the shaping or politicization of intelligence. The Central Intelligence Agency has such a person now, but appointing an ombudsman for all intelligence agencies will protect against the influence of policy or political considerations that can affect the independence and objectivity of Intelligence Community judgments. 

Sixth, also as a means of preventing a repeat of past mistakes, we need to establish a permanent “Red Team” under the National Intelligence Director to test key underlying assumptions in analytical reports. This permanent, self-auditing Red Team unit would work inside the analytical process as intelligence reports are being formulated—not just after the fact, when retrospective reviews can do little to correct damage done by policies and actions that relied on faulty information. Regrettably, Iraq offers us immediate and costly proof of such risks. 

Seventh, we must require public disclosure of the overall intelligence budget figure to heighten the level of public discourse about our national security priorities and the role of intelligence. Public disclosure can be sufficiently generalized—using only the total aggregate number—so as not to provide any useful insights to America’s foes about the allocation of resources among agencies or intelligence programs. Aggregated funding disclosure poses no threat to our national security, and provides needed accountability not only among agencies, but also in the Congress and the White House.

And, finally, we must overhaul the Congressional oversight process—in both the House and Senate—to better meet our constitutional obligation to provide checks and balances over intelligence and the grave policies and decisions influenced by it. In the Senate, we already put aside jurisdictional turf-battles to create a new Homeland Security Committee, combined with the existing Governmental Affairs Committee, to oversee activities now within the purview of nine other committees. We also created two new subcommittees—Intelligence Oversight under the full Select Committee on Intelligence, and Intelligence Appropriations under the full Senate Appropriations Committee—to help streamline the authorization and appropriation process. And, we eliminated committee term limits and increased committee resources.

Taken together, these eight major reforms would represent the most significant and far-reaching changes to our national intelligence structure in over 50 years. They would transform an intelligence program designed for the Cold War into one designed for the war against global terrorism and future national security threats.

As the debate continues, it’s important to note that the demand for reforming the Intelligence Community is not new. In fact, the debate about reforming intelligence has been swirling around the Capitol for decades. Since the creation of the National Security Act in 1947, there have been no fewer than 46 significant studies, reviews, and commissions on the need to reform the US Intelligence Community. The concept of creating a position such as a national intelligence director dates back to the Nixon administration. Sadly, these past commissions’ recommendations were never enacted, primarily because there was no precipitating event that called for action.  

Now, three years after September 11, we finally have an historic opportunity to achieve real and comprehensive reform of our nation’s Intelligence Community.  

We have the best chance in a generation for getting at the heart of the problem—the need for centralized leadership and streamlined coordination. With perseverance, and determined leadership from the President, we can reach agreement and achieve lasting reform. We have a responsibility to act now to make America safer—today and for the future. 

Issue Date


Vice Chairman, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence