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Published: Saturday, 7/31/2004

Intelligence hangnail

IF YOU staggered into the emergency room of a hospital suffering from appendicitis and a hangnail, would you want the doctors to treat the hangnail first? And would you want the doctors to treat your hangnail by amputating your thumb?

The 9/11 commission thinks the cure for a problem caused by too much bureaucracy is to add another layer of bureaucracy.

The commission recommended that an intelligence "czar," a national intelligence director, be appointed to oversee the 15 agencies in the Intelligence Community. The NID would have control over the budgets of all intelligence agencies, and the power to fire the heads of subordinate agencies.

Reform of the structure of the intelligence community is long overdue. The best case for it is made by retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former head of the National Security Agency, in his excellent little book: Fixing Intelligence.

But it wasn't the structure of the intelligence community that led to the intelligence failures on 9/11. The 9/11 attacks were successful mostly because:

●The CIA and the FBI had precious little information about al-Qaeda and its plans.

●The CIA and the FBI were unwilling to share what little they did know with each other, or with other intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

●Border and airport security was incredibly lax, thanks to a combination of laziness, inadequate funding, and an excess of political correctness.

"The real problem is in collection and analysis, not coordination," said James Lilley, a CIA officer for 27 years before becoming ambassador to South Korea, and then to China. "We're falling down getting good information because we don't have good case officers, and analysis is demonstrably weak."

"The people who have the skill to do intelligence have been shoved aside and bureaucrats have replaced them," said Herbert Meyer, who was a special assistant to William Casey, Ronald Reagan's CIA chief. "Until you fix that, nothing else will work."

An anecdote from Robert Baer's memoir, See No Evil, illustrates the problem. When Mr. Baer was the CIA station chief in Tajikstan in 1994, he asked CIA headquarters to send him officers who spoke Dari and Pashtun, the principal languages of Afghanistan, so they could interview the thousands of refugees pouring across the border.

Mr. Baer was told no Dari or Pashtun linguists were available, but Langley would send out a four-person team to explain the CIA's new policy on sexual harassment.

In his superb book, 1,000 Years for Revenge, journalist Peter Lance describes how FBI brass rejected an informant who was trying to warn them of the 1993 World Trade Center bomb plot, and ignored ample evidence of the 9/11 plot.

The FBI and the CIA badly need better people, and fewer layers of management to interfere with them. Appointing an intelligence "czar" will not solve these problems, and could screw up the other agencies in the intelligence community, most of which are doing just fine.

Most Americans, and the 9/11 commission, don't understand that the Central Intelligence Agency isn't so central anymore. Most of our intelligence - and our most reliable intelligence - comes from the National Security Agency, which intercepts radio, telephone, and Internet communications, and the National GeoSpatial Intelligence Agency, which does for imagery intelligence what NSA does for signals intelligence.

NSA and NGA didn't exist when the CIA was created in 1947. Neither did five other members of the intelligence community. In 1947, before all these other agencies existed, it made sense to make the director of the CIA also the director of Central Intelligence, the nominal head of the entire intelligence community.

It's clear now the CIA director's two jobs should go to two people. But the national intelligence director should be more of a primus inter pares (first among equals) than a "czar," most intelligence experts think.

"I doubt that hundreds of years of stupidity and rigidity is a good model for U.S. intelligence," said R. James Woolsey, President Clinton's first CIA director, referring to the absolute Russian rulers.

Whatever you think of the 9/11 commission's recommendations, it is important to remember they are prescriptions for curing the hangnail, not the appendicitis.

The 9/11 attacks succeeded in part because Americans have difficulty distinguishing between what's important and what isn't.

The report of the 9/11 commission indicates not much has changed.



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