With US intel agencies, the old ways may have worked better

With US intel agencies, the old ways may have worked better
© Greg Nash

Six months ago, I predicted that Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsFormer US intel official says Trump would often push back in briefings Hillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Intelligence agencies have stopped collecting cellphone data without warrants: letter MORE was on the way out as Director of National Intelligence (DNI). 

At the time, the U.S. intelligence community had released its Worldwide Threat Assessment, which pooh-poohed the prospects for a denuclearized North Korea, despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE’s assertion that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnBolton rips Trump administration's move to block UN meeting on North Korea South Korea: North tested rocket engine The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today MORE had, in their summit, initiated a process leading to denuclearization. The report also contradicted the president’s assertion that Iran was proceeding with its nuclear weapons program. And it asserted that thousands of ISIS fighters remained in Syria, even as the president was claiming that the ISIS “caliphate will soon be destroyed.”

That Coats survived an additional six months is no indication that he had any significant influence on presidential decisions. After all, former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLisa Page sues DOJ, FBI over alleged privacy violations Sessions leads GOP Senate primary field in Alabama, internal poll shows Trump rebukes FBI chief Wray over inspector general's Russia inquiry MORE survived a year of increasingly nasty attacks by the president for recusing himself at the outset of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. At least Coats was not subjected to the same twittered barbs and insults.

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Coats has now resigned and a Trump loyalist, Congressman John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeTrump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing House Republicans on Judiciary strategize ahead of Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE (R-Texas), has been nominated to replace him. Yet, Trump has at times mused that he does not need a Director of National Intelligence. The position was created in response to a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission; its purpose was to better coordinate the activities of the 17 agencies that comprise the intelligence community. 

The job always seemed to be one that was akin to herding stray cats. The various agencies have very different cultures; they tend to be fiercely independent. They do not even recognize one another’s security clearances; they prefer to conduct their own background checks.

It is not at all clear that the DNI has done much to improve coordination among the agencies. But the Office of the DNI certainly has increased its staff since it came into being in 2004. There is a deputy DNI for acquisition, and another deputy DNI for policy, plans and requirements. There is an executive committee. There is a chief of staff who directs the intelligence community staff. There are six centers, and 15 offices below the leadership team level. 

Whether all this bureaucracy has made much of a difference in the effectiveness of the nation’s intelligence capabilities is another matter, however.

It is true that, since the DNI’s creation, the intelligence community has not suffered a failure of the magnitude of 9/11, when it overlooked numerous signals that an attack on American targets was imminent. Yet, even with the creation of the DNI and supporting staff, the intel community failed to anticipate the Iraqi sectarian civil war that broke into the open in 2006 and had been simmering for at least a year earlier. Nor did it anticipate the explosive rise of ISIS and the so-called caliphate’s lightning-like seizure of huge swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory.

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Prior to 9/11, the intelligence community was loosely coordinated by what was then called the Intelligence Community Staff, which reported to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in his (until then, it was always “his”) dual role as Director of Central Intelligence. Clearly, coordination was not what it should have been, or else 9/11 might never have taken place. 

Nevertheless, perhaps in light of the community’s mixed record since 2004, there is a case to be made for a return to the old system.  

The CIA still exerts considerable clout: When then-CIA Director Leon Panetta clashed with DNI Dennis Blair, it was Blair who resigned after less than 18 months in office, while Panetta went on to become Secretary of Defense. 

Though they have not achieved the level of coordination that initially had been hoped for when the office of the DNI came into being, the various intelligence agencies have become accustomed to some degree of coordination over the past 15 years, which a re-energized — and downsized — intelligence community staff could build upon. 

Ultimately, staff coordination is a more a function of strong — indeed, aggressive — leadership than of creative organization charts. The intelligence community is inherently unwieldy, and to some extent always will remain so. Nevertheless, the case for cutting excessive staff at the top is a strong one and, with the right leadership, a more streamlined bureaucracy may well prove more effective than the system in place today.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.