Can—Or Should—Intelligence Be Reformed? (1)

Today’s most interesting story may be Trump’s intention to “reform” our intelligence community because the office of the Director of National Intelligence has become too bloated and politicized. The Wall Street Journal account says:

One of the people familiar with Mr. Trump’s planning said advisers also are working on a plan to restructure the Central Intelligence Agency, cutting back on staffing at its Virginia headquarters and pushing more people out into field posts around the world.

On the one hand, Trumpophobes will say that this is just another instance of his “don” side (if you follow me), intimidating people and organizations that stand in his way. “Nice little intelligence agency you have here; shame if anything happened to it.” I have some sympathy with this impulse on his part, and hope that Trump will move the senior management of the IRS to Nome, Alaska, and senior bureaucrats of the EPA to the middle of a frack field in North Dakota. In January.

But Trump and his circle are on to something. It was a huge mistake of the Bush Administration (and several of our better intelligence experts said so at the time) to centralize our intelligence operations under a single director. Better to have competing sources of intelligence gathering and analysis, notwithstanding problems of duplication and communication. This was done because the CIA, FBI, and other nodes had failed to “connect the dots” before 9/11. But “communication” was not the real problem. You can’t connect any dots when you don’t see them in the first place. “Those aren’t dots! They’re just some pepper flecks that blew off my scrambled eggs.” Re-shuffling the organizational chart will not fix the underlying problems of intelligence community group think. I still think abolishing the CIA and starting over is not a completely crazy idea.

By coincidence I had lunch recently with my favorite intelligence veteran, Herbert Meyer, who William Casey’s right hand man at the CIA under President Reagan. He thinks Trump is playing a dangerous game with the CIA, because the CIA can make his life miserable if they want to, sandbagging him in any number of ways.

Herb directed my attention to a series of articles he wrote ten years ago, in the aftermath of the 9/11 Commission report, that are worth revisiting because they are a primer on how intelligence should be conceived, under any scheme of organization. The first one in the series (more to come over the next few days), “Getting Intel Right,” includes for example this insight:

If you’ve been a diligent reader of recent articles and commentary about the intelligence business, you probably have the impression that collectors collect what they can, then forward their reports, intercepts, and photos over to the analysts — who then read through all this stuff until their eyeballs bleed. This is a formula for disaster. If you don’t have a clear grasp of what you’re looking for, it’s virtually impossible to discern a pattern from the overwhelming torrent of information that’s washing over you. Just imagine standing in the middle of a Wal-Mart, realizing you’ve left your wife’s shopping list on the kitchen table — and hoping that if you just walk up and down the aisles you’ll somehow figure it out.

Here’s how the intelligence business really works: You start with a hypothesis, which is a leap of imagination based on your expertise, your judgment, and your “gut-feel” about what you think is really going on. Then you figure out what you would expect to find if your hypothesis is correct, and you convey all this to the collectors so they can get to work. . .

Intelligence isn’t org charts. It’s people. Put the wrong people in charge and they will screw up no matter how perfectly our intelligence community is structured. Put the right people in charge and they will overcome whatever structural flaws there may be and get the job done.

Worth taking the time to read the whole thing. Herb has some fascinating intelligence stories from the Reagan era and back to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Meanwhile, a reminder:



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