In recent years there has been sharp criticism, from many quarters, on the performance level of the U.S. intelligence community. But efforts to improve the effectiveness of intelligence-gathering and analysis appear to have fallen short. In the first report of a two-part series, VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas looks at the effort to foster closer cooperation among agencies.
Since 1994, there have been nine special commissions or panels convened by the president or Congress to examine the work of the U.S. intelligence community - three of them since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. All have been near unanimous in finding that from operations to analysis, the U.S. intelligence community is a heavily bureaucratic apparatus lacking in imagination and in need of urgent reform.
Not only did the Central Intelligence Agency and the other intelligence agencies stumble badly on their analysis of Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities or fail to warn of the September 11 attacks, the reports say, they also missed warning that India was going to conduct a nuclear test in 1998.
Speaking at a recent student-sponsored conference on intelligence issues at American University in Washington, former CIA analyst Randy Pherson says there is a depressingly similar tone in the findings and recommendations in all of the studies.
"My unfortunate conclusion is that there are some very fundamental things that we just cannot figure out how to get right," he said. "And almost every commission has come up with a series of primary recommendations, and it is startling how consistent they are from commission to commission."
The intelligence community is a loose confederation of about 15 agencies. The CIA is the best known, but the National Security Agency, which engages in electronic intelligence and code breaking, is believed to have more people and funds. The Department of Defense - which controls the NSA - has control over most of the other intelligence components. Within the U.S., there is the FBI and the newly created Department of Homeland Security.
But the various commissions all found that the agencies tend to be suspicious of each other and often fail to share potentially crucial information. For years the FBI and CIA refused to even talk to each other.
Randy Pherson says, "jointness," as it has come to be called, is the way to foster fresh thinking.
"Where we have had most of our major intelligence failures is that we have gotten into a mindset, and we have not had the tools or techniques or the stimulus to force us to rethink the process, which is why I encourage the idea that if you have more jointness in the process, it forces by its very definition a challenge to what you are saying and how you are thinking about these problems."
Joint centers of specialists from the CIA, FBI, and NSA and other agencies were set up on some areas, such as counter-terrorism, to foster cooperation. But Kevin Scheid, team leader for intelligence on the 9/11 Commission, says "jointness" has not worked very well.
"These centers were trying to transcend these institutional biases across the community and help build a more comprehensive picture of the particular problems they were working," he said. "Unfortunately, these proved over the years to be a bit of a band-aid approach to quite ossified bureaucracies that were not used to sharing a great deal of information. There were pockets of good activity, good sharing. But on the whole, the record was not very good."
Former CIA officer Mike Scheuer, who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden, tells VOA "jointness" only works if the agencies adapt to new threats and shake off the cobwebs of the Cold War to fight new threats.
"Collecting intelligence against closed societies is one thing," he said. "Against these more diverse transnational threats is another. And until policy makers become comfortable with acting on less than perfect intelligence, the whole idea of 'jointness' is just another obfuscation that will not result in better [intelligence] community cooperation. It will result in more claims that there is better community cooperation."
One key reform that has been enacted is the creation of the post of Director of National Intelligence. The director is to act as bureaucratic referee among squabbling agencies. But the extent of his authority is murky and is expected to be worked out over time in what intelligence insiders say are certain to be bruising bureaucratic battles.