Jewish World Review March 3, 2005 / 22 Adar I 5765
Washington's toughest job
Ambassador John Negroponte, designated as director of national intelligence (DNI), is the single best appointment of President Bush's second term. He brings to the job four decades of foreign policy and national security experience in challenging assignments, from Vietnam to Iraq. He is blessed with a rare quality shared by few such as former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin of serving in public office not for what it can do for his ego or the accretion of personal power but to find rational and pragmatic answers to the dilemmas facing this country.
He will need all these qualities to cope with the vague authority over 15 intelligence agencies bequeathed to him by the congressional meat grinder. He has to slot in a new bureaucracy above existing agencies while not delaying or diminishing the intelligence going to the president. He has to coordinate his office with the directors of the CIA, the FBI, and the other agencies, so that cooperation at that level is translated down to the bureaucracy where the real work is done.
Our biggest targets are al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents elusive, stateless enemies. To penetrate them in foreign cultures, we need more human intelligence. Reorganizing our intelligence system and centralizing control in the DNI are only a start.
Here are but some of the problems the new director faces: He is supposed to know of the work of the disparate and sometimes warring agencies but has no direct power to hire and fire; he has authority over the $40 billion intelligence budget but must share it with the defense secretary, whose department controls 80 percent of it; he has a Pentagon focused on intelligence that can help win the next battle instead of spending to prevent the next attack. What role will the DNI have in allocating funds?
How will the DNI immerse himself in the details of analysis and analysts, operations and operators, in order to properly inform his dialogue with the president? In the draft resolution, the DNI was given "authority, direction, and control" of the CIA. It was diluted in Congress to say the CIA director will "report" to the DNI. That is too ambiguous.
Imagine a CIA station chief somewhere in the world with an opportunity to target a key al Qaeda operative but under the following constraints: The target is in a friendly country whose leadership will be threatened if the operation goes badly; there is no absolute certainty he's a terrorist and the window of opportunity will close within hours. Who will decide?
New layers. Typically, such a decision goes to the CIA director, who would most likely confer with the president's national security adviser. Now it must go to DNI for resolution. That will add another level to the decision-making process, but the DNI cannot be merely a waiter serving up food that is prepared by other cooks. At the very least, he must have serious control over the kind of food that is prepared, and the menu, especially when he will be blamed if things go wrong.
The CIA is only one can of worms. How will the DNI monitor and control the FBI's counterintelligence operations here at home? Negroponte will not be directly in charge of any operation; nor of covert actions; nor possibly of CIA station chiefs; nor of the army of analysts whose job it is to connect the dots; nor of the operators of high-tech collection systems critical to finding and disrupting terrorist plans; nor of the Defense Department assets such as the satellite-eavesdropping systems.
What he will have to do is gain adequate access to the people in the trenches. Negroponte's acute knowledge of how power works in Washington will help him, but he will need the resolute support of the president and the Congress, especially when things go awry. We should have learned by now that an intelligence service dedicated to a mistake-free, risk-averse zone of operations will not protect us. Intelligence is a business that must be prepared to assume risks and to accept the inevitability of some failures. The terrorists are conniving strategists who will fail frequently and be caught before they strike, but once in a while they will be able to get through. To be risk averse means never to be bold enough or creative enough to meet their challenge.
George Tenet, former head of the CIA, made lots of progress in bringing the 20th-century intelligence community infrastructure into the 21st century. The new DNI will surely maintain and, let's hope, enhance that tradition of support for services that are so critical to our national well-being in the face of cunning and ruthless enemies.