The U.S. intelligence apparatus has been modified over the years, but the basic structure is little changed from when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created in 1947. In this second segment of a two-part series, VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas looks at attempts to instill fresh thinking in the U.S. intelligence community, after a series of notable intelligence failures.
There was a time when the term intelligence work summoned images of crafty secret agents carrying out dangerous missions in enemy territory. But while such figures have certainly existed, the 21st century reality is more one of a hermit-like figure, eyes glued to a computer screen in a drab cubicle in a mammoth government building.
That, say many observers of the secret world, is exactly why the CIA and other intelligence agencies have racked up such a poor track record on issues like Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the failure to warn of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Several commissions asked to look into the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence since the attacks, have faulted the agencies for becoming too reliant on technology, and paying insufficient attention to recruiting human spies. The results, those studies say, have been watered-down estimates, produced from sometimes-questionable sources by what they term "risk-averse" intelligence bureaucracies.
At a recent conference at American University on intelligence and security issues, former CIA analyst Randy Pherson said intelligence agencies have been slow to adapt to change.
"Our job used to be get the facts, and get them right, and tell the people what they need to know,” said Mr. Pherson. “Now, the paradigm really is, how do you do the analysis in such a way that you don't miss the big one? How do you not get surprised by the revolution in Iran? How do you not get surprised by a 9/11? How do you not get surprised by something that was as eminently possible not to be surprised by, which was the lack of Iraqi WMD? We could have solved that problem, and we didn't."
The culture of what Mr. Pherson terms "group-think" was not always so among the 15 agencies that comprise the intelligence community. Former CIA officer Mike Scheuer tells VOA that things were different when he joined the agency, but changed dramatically in recent years, especially under former CIA Director George Tenet.
"When I was recruited and joined in the early '80s, the agency was very much a place where iconoclasm was valued,” he said. “There was a lot of hard-headed debate. It isn't that way anymore. Under Mr. Tenet. especially, we became a very homogenized organization."
William Nolte, deputy assistant director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production, says bureaucracy and creativity have a hard time co-existing.
"How do you indoctrinate for imagination? How do you do imagination in bureaucracies? The reason you bureaucratize things is, in some ways, to regularize practice,” he explained. “And what's an alternative way of regularizing practice? You drive out imagination."
Former U.S. chief weapons inspector and CIA officer David Kay attributes the failure of imagination on Iraq to former CIA Director Tenet and his staff.
"The real breakdown in Iraq was not so much the analysts, although I think they did not do a very good job,” he noted. “It was at the upper management levels of the CIA. The director of Central Intelligence and his deputy - who, in fact, imposed the uniformity on what went forward to the policymakers that was not present if you actually read or took the trouble of talking to the analysts."
In an attempt to deal with the intelligence community's problems, Congress and the Bush administration created the new post of Director of National Intelligence, a recommendation of the so-called 9/11 Commission, which did an exhaustive investigation of U.S. intelligence failures following the September 11 attacks. President Bush nominated John Negroponte, who recently served as ambassador to the United Nations and then Iraq, to be the first national intelligence director.
But with vague and untested authority, it remains to be seen what effect the new post will have on the men and women who collect intelligence, whether from a back alley in Istanbul, or a computer screen in Virginia.