November 20, 2004

No Weeping for Intel Reform

So it looks as if Pentagon interests prevailed, and intelligence reform is officially dead in the water. This is unfortunate, I think, but it doesn't necessarily put America in greater danger. The rationale behind a National Intelligence Director (and a unified Counterterrorism Center) was always to promote intelligence sharing. But note that the current structure doesn't necessarily hinder sharing. Prior to the thwarted Millennium Plot in 1999, "information about terrorism flowed widely and abundantly," according to the 9/11 Commission Report—primarily because everyone was nervous about Y2K. Presumably the same heightened awareness holds true today, after 9/11; we just have to worry about lapsing back into complacency.

Other proposed reforms were also a bit mixed. The Commission wanted to consolidate some of the oversight committees in Congress, and let their members serve for longer. The idea behind the first was that intelligence officials spend too much time testifying. But as a former committee staffer told me long ago, most of the testifying goes on before the two main committees anyways, and consolidation wouldn't change all that much. The second reform was, however, actually useful—right now, term limits on committee members prevent anyone from gaining any expertise on intelligence issues, which leads to bad oversight. Another idea which was never offered up would be to give committee members actual incentives to do their jobs. Doing the grunt work on oversight is, alas, dismally boring, and doesn't help you get re-elected. As a result, there's too much "focus on personal investigations, possible scandals, and issues designed to generate media attention," according to Sen. Dick Durbin's 9/11 Commission testimony. But all in all, these changes are largely trivial.

Now I want to note that there is one big reform that really ought to happen: Intelligence officials should have better access to the Pentagon's surveillance agencies. As Ashton Carter, an assistant secretary of defense under Clinton, told Congress earlier this year, the DoD is doing a miserable job of coordinating its technical capacities to track WMD developments. If we want to improve intelligence on the most important issue of the day—nuclear terrorism—then we want to create an NID who can properly direct military surveillance. Unfortunately, no one was proposing this sort of change—the Pentagon early on managed to drum up bullshit concerns about interference with the military chain of command. And the compromise about 'budget authority' didn't really go far enough. So really, the compromise bill that just got sunk was tainted from the start anyways.
-- Brad Plumer 7:38 PM || ||