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Analysis: US Intelligence Agencies Struggling With Reform

U.S. intelligence agencies came in for sharp criticism for failing to intercept the September 11, 2001 terrorist plot. Similar criticism was voiced for the faulty conclusion by intelligence analysts that Iraq would be found to have weapons of mass destruction and in both instances were there calls for intelligence reforms. There is hot debate over the sort reforms needed and complaints reform is moving far too slowly in many areas.

It was just a little over one year ago that the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, known simply as the "9/11 Commission", released its recommendations for intelligence reform. In response, President Bush established the National Counterterrorism Center, and Congress passed an intelligence reform law.

But former intelligence officers and members of the 9/11 Commission say the reforms in some areas are sluggish at best.

Former commissioner Slade Gorton says that, four years after the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, it is still enormously difficult to get different agencies in the huge national security bureaucracy to work together. "I think it is impossible to overestimate the difficulty in moving a huge federal government with dozens and dozens of agencies from a culture in which information is treasured and kept and hidden, to one of appropriate information sharing," he said.

As if to underscore that point, President Bush just on Tuesday issued an executive order calling on U.S. intelligence agencies to share information related to terrorism and set up an "Information Sharing Council."

Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Michael Scheuer, who headed the agency's unit hunting Osama bin Laden, says serious problems remain in his former agency under its director, Porter Goss. He says Mr. Goss has alienated top officers, and points to the recent abrupt resignation of the number two in the clandestine operations directorate, 35-year veteran Robert Richer, as a sign that all is not well at the CIA

"It just speaks to me that there must be a tremendous morale problem and leadership problem at the agency. And if the agency is in trouble, I think you can extrapolate because the agency is, for all its faults, still the spearhead of American intelligence. And Mr. Richer's departure, I think, is a very serious indication that all is not going well in the American intelligence community," he said.

After an internal review of the CIA's performance with respect to the September 11 attacks, Mr. Goss said he would not administratively discipline any officers. Mr. Scheuer says the fact that no one has been called to account for that by either the intelligence community or the 9/11 Commission is a big mistake. "They (9/11 Commission) singularly failed to find anyone responsible for anything. And so, instead tried to reorganize a community that perhaps needed to be adjusted, but instead they've thrown the intelligence community into drift and disarray at the moment. Their suggestions were ill-conceived, I think. And the longer we get away from the 9/11 commission, the more it seems they were there to protect the reputation of politicians more than anything else," he said.

Former CIA officer Burton Gerber, a 39-year veteran of clandestine operations says it is unfair that intelligence agencies, especially the C.I.A, take all of the responsibility. "Clearly there was a failure of some sort. Partly it was a failure of connecting dots (interpreting information), as they say. But a lot of dots were connected that weren't then acted upon. And so if you start talking about accountability, I think you also have to look at leaders and policy people," he said.

Mr. Gerber and former senior State Department intelligence officer Jennifer Sims have co-edited a new book of collected essays on intelligence reform, entitled "Transforming U.S. Intelligence", in which 14 former and current practitioners of the intelligence trade offer their thoughts on their changing world.

Ms. Sims, now a visiting professor of security studies at Georgetown University, says the intelligence agencies cannot be perfect, and they should be allowed to learn from their mistakes. "Frankly, the intelligence business is a business in which you have to be able to learn from failure. You can't always be a hundred percent right. There are times when you have to try new things, take some risks. And sometimes things won't work out. And the intelligence community has to come to an understanding with the American people that when things don't work out, the intelligence community won't necessarily be radically punished for it, but will instead be allowed to figure out how things went wrong and to do better next time," he said.

The change most apparent to the general public was the creation of the new post of Director of National Intelligence, or DNI, in an effort to coordinate the 15 different federal agencies engaged in intelligence work. Some former professionals are not too happy about creating another layer of intelligence bureaucracy.

Ms. Sims says new DNI, John Negroponte, must assert his authority over the agencies, which the legislation leaves somewhat vague. He will then be in a strong position to arbitrate disputes among agencies.

Mr. Gerber says it is not just the agencies themselves that need reform, but Congress itself in its oversight role of intelligence. "Congress has to take a role in terms of intelligence that is unlike anything they do in any other authority, and that is to work without reference and without reference to who's getting more of the [pork] barrel and to work in a very positive way. There's great jealousies between the intelligence committees and the defense armed services committees. That shouldn't exist," he said.

It is a view shared by former members of the 9/11 Commission, including its co-chair, Lee Hamilton. "The American people rely on the committees of the Congress to supervise the agencies responsible for keeping them safe. Unfortunately, Congress is not yet organized to be an effective partner and watchdog in the post-9/11 era," he said.

Mr. Gerber says the most important reform of all will be to make sure the bureaucracy does not stifle agility and enthusiasm and initiative of U.S. intelligence officers.