Dissect the Divisions


Jun 9, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore Sun on June 9, 2002.

American intelligence institutions and practices left us vulnerable to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 because they made sharp distinctions between how we gather intelligence and carry out law enforcement abroad and how we do it in our own country.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller's announcement May 29 of a reorganization of the FBI to put a greater emphasis on fighting terrorism—including more intelligence analysis and greater cooperation with the CIA—is an important first step to reduce our vulnerability to future attacks.

When he created the CIA in 1947, President Harry S. Truman worried about a "Gestapo-like" organization, so the CIA was barred from law enforcement and domestic operations. This legitimate concern with protecting our civil liberties created firewalls between the FBI, CIA and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies. We not only discouraged communication- and information-sharing between agencies, we often made it illegal.

The firewalls did not create insurmountable problems during the Cold War, as our intelligence agencies confronted spies and military forces from communist nations abroad while the FBI concentrated primarily on catching criminals in the United States.

Unfortunately, Sept. 11 showed us that terrorists who are determined to kill as many Americans as possible make no distinctions between borders, attacking when and where they choose. They have cleverly used safeguards designed to protect American rights to evade detection by the U.S. government and take American lives.

As we intensify our war on terrorism, examining the Cold War distinctions we imposed on our intelligence and law enforcement system should be high on our agenda as Congress conducts hearings on why we were taken by surprise by the airborne suicide bombers who struck Sept. 11. There are six basic distinctions:

  • Law enforcement vs. intelligence. Intelligence is oriented toward the future and seeks to inform policymakers. It lives in a blizzard of uncertainty where the "truth" will never be known for certain. Because intelligence officials must protect their sources and methods to be effective, they can't present their evidence for the world to see and testify in court. By contrast, law enforcement is in the business of presenting evidence and prosecuting cases in open courts.
  • Foreign vs. domestic. In the 1970s, the directors of the CIA and FBI rarely shared information. Things have improved, but still relations between the two are ragged. The National Security Agency (NSA) is also barred from law enforcement and from domestic spying. So if the trail of conversations on which the NSA is eavesdropping becomes "domestic"—that is, involves a U.S. citizen, corporation or even resident alien—the trail must end.
  • Public vs. private. During the Cold War, national security was a federal government responsibility involving the military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. But today, terrorists make no distinction between the public servants and ordinary Americans. All of us are told to be on the alert for new terrorist attacks. And tragically, more ordinary Americans are likely to die like the victims of Sept. 11, drawn involuntarily into the war against terrorism.
  • Secret vs. open sources. Cold War intelligence, focused on a secretive Soviet Union, dealt with analyzing a relatively small pool of secret information from secret sources. But today, our government and our people are drowning in a sea of information, much of it inaccurate or deliberate disinformation put out by our enemies. How do we identify the information that is correct so we can respond to facts rather than false alarms? Traditional intelligence methods remain vital to supplement open sources.
  • Analysts vs. collectors. During the Cold War, given the reliance on technical and secret sources, the distinction made sense. Collectors could pass their take to analysts, who would assemble various pieces of information into a clear picture, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But today, the best "collectors" are experts on substance—"analysts." They know how to connect the dots.
  • Intelligence vs. policy. More than other countries, the United States drew a bright white line between the two. The justification, which made sense during the Cold War, was that if intelligence got too close to the stakes and biases of policy officials, its objectivity would be compromised and it would become "politicized." The concern remains, but if the tragic saga of Sept. 11 shows anything, it demonstrates that intelligence needs to be intertwined with those responsible for policy and operations.

Congressional investigations of the Sept. 11 attacks can be an opportunity to further examine these six distinctions as we search for ways to balance our civil liberties with our need for security in this dangerous world.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior policy analyst with RAND. He served as vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council during the Clinton administration. His latest book is Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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