The Danger of Too Much Chumminess
The resignation of George J. Tenet as director of central intelligence comes at a perilous moment. Still off-balance after having been unable to thwart the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and still reeling under scathing criticism for having provided a bogus casus belli for the war in Iraq, the agency is under intense but understandable scrutiny. Add to the intelligence failures new revelations alleging that the United States was duped into going to war by the Pentagon’s now-estranged star intelligence peddler, Ahmad Chalabi, and constructive concern begins to turn to potentially destructive outrage.
Tales of torture, seemingly sanctioned at the highest levels and applied by U.S. intelligence officers as they extracted information from prisoners, add disturbing moral and legal dimensions to the accumulating misadventures. Next come reports by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Sept. 11 commission. The U.S.’ premier intelligence agency is headed for white water this summer.
The Senate committee has concluded its review of the CIA’s role in the collection and analysis of pre-Iraq war intelligence, and the word is that it is a blistering indictment of the agency. The report will energize charges that the intelligence books were pressure-cooked by the White House and by civilians at the Pentagon predisposed to fight in Iraq. The committee is debating how much of the report should be made public, but its deliberations will become moot when its stinging details are leaked to the media, a Washington reality already underway. The senators might as well release the entire report, if for no other reason than to provide context for the leaks.
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the Sept. 11 inquiry is formally named, will release its report in the coming weeks. In addition to criticizing the CIA for its pre-9/11 failures, it may call for an overhaul of the intelligence community. The urge “to do something” about U.S. intelligence, and to do it now, will be nearly irresistible for a Congress seeking relevance in the stormiest election cycle in memory, but those urges ought to be resisted, at least for now. Some lawmakers are calling for the creation of an “intelligence czar” with “real” control over the intelligence budgets of the 15 agencies involved in intelligence. Others are calling for a new internal security service modeled after Britain’s MI-5.
Neither idea would be likely to improve national security, and both might actually harm it. It is impossible to envision a single official wielding unchallenged power over 15 separate intelligence agencies. A more predictable result of such an effort would be an intelligence czar perhaps even weaker than the CIA director under current law. And if there is a rush to create new security organizations to meet our intelligence needs, some of them based on uninformed fancy, then serious, perhaps irreversible mistakes will be made.
Though MI-5 has had a noble history and was a reliable ally in the intelligence wars of the last half-century, it is not really a match for America. Britain is our staunchest ally, but there are some fundamental differences of outlook between it and the United States on matters of internal security. Critics of MI-5 will even suggest that its historical threads run back to Oliver Cromwell and the unpleasantness in England that spawned so much migration to these shores in the first place. It would perhaps be better to seek an American solution to an American problem.
Nor is there a need to rush to name a replacement for Tenet. It might be best to let John McLaughlin, who will become acting director in July, take the reins until January, thus avoiding the theater of a confirmation hearing in a heated election cycle. Some in the intelligence community worry that the low-key McLaughlin may be disadvantaged because he will not enjoy Tenet’s personal access to and bonhomie with the president. But it might be good for the relationship between the CIA director and the president to cool down.
Tenet was the only director in the last 50 years who regularly delivered the president’s daily brief, the highly restricted compilation of overnight intelligence, to the Oval Office each morning. (His predecessors usually sent a briefer to handle the task.) That kind of exposure carries risk. Keeping a firewall between intelligence and policy has always been a challenge for any CIA chief, but it would seem to be impossible for a director whose every working day begins with a chummy meeting with the president and his national security advisor. Under such conditions, intelligence will cease to be the objective driver of policy that it must be, and inevitably policy will begin to drive intelligence, as we have seen in the case of Iraq.
Let the director job cool down for six months, and encourage future CIA heads to maintain their respectful distance from policy by staying on their side of the Potomac River in the woods of Virginia.
This crisis over intelligence involves two separate issues: the 9/11 intelligence failure and the apparent politicization of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war. The first problem can be dealt with wisely, as was a similar, grievous intelligence failure two generations ago at Pearl Harbor. Then, cool heads came to understand the need for change, and U.S. intelligence was redesigned to meet the challenges in Europe and the Pacific. At the same time, horse cavalry and battle fleets, each noble and effective in their time, were replaced by armor and carrier fleets, and the war was won.
U.S. intelligence will again change and meet the challenge to prevent another 9/11. That part of the storm, protecting us from our enemies, will be easy to ride out, but the task of not repeating the errors of the post-Sept. 11 march to war in Iraq and the mistakes that have followed that war will be far more difficult. That involves protecting us from ourselves, and if we don’t get that right, the nation will, indeed, be at risk.