The CIA's work must not be impeded by politics

By Jack Devine

Financial Times

Published: August 17 2004 19:33

Demands for US intelligence reform have arrived in the high season of presidential politics. This is regrettable. While no one questions the need for structural and budgetary change, partisanship could undermine meaningful reform and impose an urgency on the process that would be both unrealistic and counterproductive. At the same time, there is an exaggerated focus on the need to improve co-ordination of intelligence data between government departments - to 'connect the dots'.

Breaking down bureaucratic barriers to analysis is legitimate and laudable. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the most important task is ‚collecting the dots‚. The Central Intelligence Agency is the 'point of the lance', heading efforts to obtain intelligence abroad and penetrate and destroy terrorist cells. Since September 11 2001, the CIA has done a highly commendable job, as demonstrated by the recent arrest in Pakistan of Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, a computer engineer allegedly involved in running a communications system for al-Qaeda leaders. It is essential that we do not undermine the agency's operational capability while creating a Washington-based bureaucracy.

The 9/11 commission's proposals must be taken for what they are: thoughtful recommendations, not infallible truths. The congressional hearings have revealed that implementing the proposed changes will be complicated and they have reinforced what intelligence professionals already know: that, above all, reform needs to be done right, rather than quickly.

If thoughtfully implemented, the commission's recommendations may streamline intelligence and budgetary activities, but they will not improve how intelligence is collected and analysed, and they may make it worse.

US intelligence agencies and their foreign counterparts are already functioning at full capacity and are aware of the need to co-ordinate intelligence. Restructuring can do little to improve the situation or provide greater security for America and its allies.

No matter which path we pursue - that recommended by the 9/11 commission and endorsed without reservation by John Kerry or the modified proposal by George W. Bush - it is critical that we strengthen, not weaken, the CIA and its ability to ‚collect the dots‚.

First, Congress must make it a priority to confirm Porter Goss as the new CIA director. In addition to his considerable congressional intelligence oversight experience, Mr Goss offers the unique advantage of having actual ly served in the CIA as a ‚clandestine operations officer‚. His detailed understanding of covert operations abroad - both their strengths and weaknesses - will eliminate the need for a lengthy period to get to know the agency and provide extraordinary insight into managing reform there.

Second, the CIA's resources to hire, train and deploy ‚spymasters‚ abroad must be substantially increased. The agency has been stretched thin covering the terrorist threat, Iraq and other priorities that pre-dated September 11.

The proposed National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) must be tied to the CIA, not to the new national intelligence director, and it should be led by a senior CIA official with direct access to the CIA director. Intelligence collection, analysis and planning must be part of the same chain of command. Otherwise, we risk making decisions based on disjointed, faulty intelligence and analysis. Above all, the temptation to create another free-standing intelligence agency must be resiste d.

Paramilitary covert action should remain a CIA function. The 9/11 commission recommends transferring such operations to the Department of Defense. If that were to occur, it is difficult to imagine how the US would overcome the diplomatic, political and legal obstacles to implementing paramilitary covert activities, let alone maintain the speed and efficiency with which the CIA can carry them out.

Finally, embedded in the report is a recommendation to create a new agency to exploit open-source data from the internet, foreign language broadcasts and media publications - a task that is already part of the everyday work of CIA analysts. This represents yet another costly redundancy.

The congressional process is indispensable to good government when it works in the interest of the nation rather than political parties. This can be such a moment. The 9/11 commission's recommendations for intelligence reform must be thoroughly reviewed and debated in a non-partisan manner. Only if this is done will the CIA be strengthened, as it should be.

The writer is a former CIA associate deputy director of operations and president of The Arkin Group, a New York intelligence consulting firm