April 29, 2004

Coverts for Kerry

As long as we're talking about intelligence, we may as well make a side stop to talk about politics for a second. Keep in mind that I'm blessed with an awful, truly awful, political sense. I have next to no clue what "voters" think about, or why they act in the crazy and counterintuitive ways that they do.

Nevertheless, I think it's high time that Kerry came out with a major intelligence policy initiative, and market it high and low. Everyone and their undercover wife knows that the intelligence community needs a serious overhaul. Well, Mr. Kerry, here you go. Pick a venue and start talking. Propose something broad, sweeping, brimmed with specifics, and utterly bold.

Don't just blubber out easy platitudes about a new Director of National Intelligence. Go big. Go colossal. Lay out a specific role for a National Intelligence Council under the DCI. Say you want to fold the CIA into the Pentagon. Say you want a dedicated Counterintelligence Agency. Say that we need senior management training, that we need to run intelligence like a business, that the community needs to go through the same painful adjustments to the 21st century that companies like IBM and GE went through. Whatever piques you. The key here is to lay out both a strong vision for intelligence, and bolster it with sharp, specific proposals.

Now make this policy a major focus of your campaign. And then tell your challengers to bring it on.

If the Bush campaign responds by saying that this administration is already trying to fix intelligence, say that most of the changes currently proposed are merely cosmetic. If the Bush campaign says that the Kerry plan won't work, accuse Bush of siding with an inept and cost-inefficient bureaucracy. Be harsh. This is, after all, the bloated intelligence community that nodded off on 9/11. Many voters, especially swing voters, have already shown that they feel uncomfortable with blaming Bush for 9/11. But if the president is seen as timid in pushing real reform, well, that's a different matter… Everything we've heard from Richard Clarke will suddenly sink in, with a new and forceful relevance.

Realize that most of the public won't be in any mood to hash out the finer points of the Pentagon's structural organization. Voters will just see two candidates—one pushing for major change, and one meekly protesting that the bureaucracy that let 9/11 happen only requires a little tweaking. Guess which candidate they'll side with.

Of course, you don't want to get bogged down in wonky little details. Otherwise, the New York Times will report on your proposal with a "A Kerry spokesperson said [confusing statement X]… A Bush spokesperson said [confusing statement Y]…" and the average, much-harried reader will throw his or her hands up in confusion. So package it all in an overarching vision—something about a radical overhaul combined with modern, business-like efficiency. Declare a mini-war on the entrenched bureaucrats who resist change. Who can argue against that?

Also, don't make this about internationalism, about sharing intelligence with other countries. That may be sound policy, but it's open to the usual criticism and rebukes. Just keep quiet on the issue.

Remember, stay positive. Make this a constructive vision, a vision in which the Kerry campaign strongly believes. A plan that offers voters a real alternative. Once your vision has firmly established itself, then, only then, should you unload with your most vicious attacks. Blame the president for 9/11. Call the USA PATRIOT act a civil liberties-shredding model of inefficacy. Distort what you must and hyperbole how you will. But make sure you have something solid, something actual, upon which to stand.

It only seems like Bush effortlessly absorbed all those accusations and aspersions cast by the 9/11 commission. But he didn't. Those harsh words are still floating around, they just need to be focused more effectively. The intelligence issue is the perfect place to do that. Most importantly, the time is now. If Bush proposes his reforms first, then anything you respond with—no matter how bold—will sound like a tepid partisan reaction. So put that much-vaunted war hero bravery to good use and launch an offensive.
-- Brad Plumer 7:26 PM || ||