Friday, February 18, 2005

John Negroponte: A Functional Intelligence Director


President Bush selected Ambassador John Negroponte to be the first National Intelligence Director (NID), and the announcement produced very little comment. Those inclined to attack President Bush attacked the choice out of habit, but there is not much buzz in the corporate media. I think it's because the Old Media doesn't understand what the NID is, or what the choice of Negroponte means.

Congress overwhelmingly approved putting the NID in control of all of the existing intelligence agencies. This makes the NID the single most powerful individual in U.S. Intelligence. He will have the power to give orders to the DCI at CIA, to the head of the NSA, even to the FBI on Intelligence matters. No one person has ever held that kind of authority at an appointed post. So, we really ought to look more closely at what's happening, and what we may expect from this appointment.

First, I want to take a look at why the Reform was necessary. A lot of people looked at the 9/11 Commission only as a political maneuver for the upcoming elections, and there was that. But there was a serious question, as well, about whether the Al Qaeda attack could not have been prevented. Essentially, what we discovered was that there was information available, which in hindsight seems to point to the attack, but which lacked enough specifics for an agency to reasonably hope to create a functional plan to stop it.

Also, following the invasion of Iraq and the deposing of Saddam, many critics of the war have harshly denounced the inability to locate stockpiles of suspected nuclear materials or biological/chemical weapons.

The continuing spate of bombings, sniper attacks, and assorted low-scale violence in Iraq is frustrating Coalition efforts to build a self-sufficient democratic government in Iraq. Progress is being made, but not on a pre-established timetable.

Other Arab governments are showing signs of potential trouble, best evidenced by the Syria-Iran co-defense pact.

The continuing question of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden has also bedeviled the United States.

Also, questions about intentions of the Chinese and Korean governments have brought pressure on the State and Defense departments, as well as the White House.

What these all have in common, is the question of Intelligence. There's an easy way to know how Intelligence is doing: If it has some problems, the media will talk about 'Intelligence failures'; if it has success, it will be ignored. The Intelligence community has long understood this condition, and sometimes has been able to make their sad-sack reputation work to their advantage, but there is no question the reputation is difficult to carry, however undeserved.

Intelligence operations in American history are actually older than the country itself. Not many people realize that the daring raid by the rebels on Trenton New Jersey (immortalized in the famous painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware") was made possible by information Washington got from paid agents. Ask any veteran, and they'll confirm that good information saves lives. Of course, many of them will also tell you what they think of bad Intel, and the guys who commit soldiers to operations on weak analysis. The present conditions, then, come from three root causes, requiring three separate but vital corrections.

The first root is the history of U.S. Intelligence. While the Armed Forces have had variations of Intelligence over the years, the United States did not create a professional Intelligence agency until after World War 2. This is due to the attitude in Washington, which was the first of 4 opposing forces. This may best be demonstrated by the treatment of Herbert Yardley, whose "Black Chamber" team created an impressive codebreaking device. His office was shut down in 1929, however, with Secretary of State Stimson's naïve and myopic comment, "Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail". As a direct result, the development of U.S. codebreaking operations was delayed by years, preventing the United States from being able to fully intercept the Japanese Naval codes which could have prevented the Pearl Harbor raid and saved thousands of lives.

The second opposing force came from the Intelligence Community itself. In a single generation, the CIA went from a small group of professional officers and analysts, to a massive government entity with thousands of employees, a huge budget, and no sense of accountability. Individual agents used the Agency as a cover for drug-running and smuggling, assassinations and even overthrow of foreign governments, without any sort of official authority. All those bad movies about 'plausible deniability', are talking about this era.

The third opposing force was the Church Committee investigations, as well as subsequent eviscerating legislation. Basically, the Church Committee is a big reason why we have fifteen Intelligence agencies in the United States, who were until recently not allowed to talk to each other and share information. At best, this wasted energy and promising leads of investigation. At worst, it denied critical pieces of information from being assembled in time to stop the deaths of three thousand innocent people. Many people do not realize that an American Intelligence agency operates under restraints unknown to any other major country. Ironically, while this has made it more difficult for the agencies to do their job, there's no evidence it has prevented abuse by individuals or groups.

The fourth opposing force came into play when Bill Clinton came into office. With the Soviet Union dissolving, and no apparent major threats on the horizon, President Clinton set about making the Intelligence community more useful to his purposes, by creating offices to uncover financial crimes and to use electronic tools to advance a futuristic tool for surveillance (it seems ironic to me, that ECHELON, the NSA system for intercepting potentially any telephone call from anywhere in the world, is often cited as an example of Republican indifference to privacy rights, but came into operation during the Clinton Administration) . The Clinton Administration also demanded background checks on the character of potential agents recruited, and severely curtailed operations in nations hostile to the United States. That's right; Bill Clinton pulled back on sending agents into Iraq, because he was afraid it might anger Saddam Hussein. Clinton depended instead on satellite imagery and NSA intercepts. In sum, that plan did not work, as enemy states simply learned how to conceal their movements and positioning.

To quell these four opposing forces, it is necessary for Intelligence executives to produce accountability to the President and Congress, while remaining able to do their jobs without interference or delay. This prompted the creation of the NID, in the same way that a new Organizational Chart can help a company route its authority and delegations.

The second root problem is turf. The fifteen existing agencies have different heads, separate budgets, jurisdictions which sometimes overlap, and no hierarchy. The DCI reported to the President or the NSA, the Director of the FBI reported to the Attorney General, and the heads of the armed services Intelligence groups reported to the Pentagon, and so on. The creation of the NID allows for fluid operations (preventing the rigidity of restricting authority), but allows the NID to authorize or delegate agencies to tasks and priorities at need.

The third root problem is direction. In years past, the whims of Presidents and Congresses have unduly influenced the priorities and roles of Agencies. The creation of the NID provides for a more independent leadership, free from the partisanship and political feuding which have crippled the Intelligence Community from operating effectively. The central nature of the NID office provides more control, while at the same time allowing a functional decentralization of the agencies in use of their resources.

The significance of these developments is also apparent in the characters and resumes of Porter Goss and John Negroponte, the new DCI and NID, respectively. At CIA, which remains the principal actor in Human Intelligence operations (actually sending in officers and recruiting agents inside a target country, often hostile to America), the need for a director the agents would understand and respect was paramount. So, President Bush chose Porter Goss, a former agent himself, and a man known for getting results. The noise coming from Langley has not been one of happy suits, which means that the long-overdue housecleaning of political drones is being accomplished, to be followed by a recruitment program to replenish the ranks of the field agents. The results won't be seen for a while, but they will happen.

At NID, the job requirement is a bit different. Some might wonder why Bush would select an ambassador, but it's really a very shrewd move. First off, while Negroponte is not a spook, he's worked in Baghdad for several months now, and has seen first hand what it means to have good, and bad, Intelligence data. Second, an ambassador is not at all a bad idea, to salve the bruised egos at NSA, FBI, ONI, and the like, where they will have to come to terms with a direct boss checking on their work. By all accounts, Negroponte is smart, tactful, and a quick learner; he won't embarrass the President or step on any toes by accident (if they need stepping, that's something else).

People have sometimes wondered if there was anything worthwhile about having a President, whose father also served as President. I think some of President George W. Bush's decisions show that he has been listening to George H.W. Bush. Especially since the father was once the Director of the CIA, and doubtless expressed his opinion on changes he would have liked to see there. George W. Bush has made a good choice, and a wise one, in selecting John Negroponte for the post of National Intelligence Director. And just like when Intelligence gets it right, the media will try to keep that success a secret, too.

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