A Fresh Start Against Terror


Aug 4, 2003

By Bruce Berkowitz

This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on August 4, 2003.

The Congressional report on the intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, along with last week's warning of possible airline hijackings by Al Qaeda, are reminders that the global terrorist threat is as worrisome as ever. Unfortunately, the White House and Congress are in a tug of war over how best to counter it. Both insist on the need for better intelligence, but they can't agree on who should provide it and how much to spend on it.

For its part, the White House is going ahead with its plan to create the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which would be made up of staff members from the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security, but would report to the director of central intelligence.

To old hands this arrangement looks awfully familiar—it seems like just an enlarged version of the current C.I.A.-based counterterrorist center, which was created two decades ago by fusing several agency branches and adding representatives from other intelligence agencies and the F.B.I. The main difference seems to be that the new center would (eventually) be housed away from the agency's Langley, Va., campus.

Many members of Congress—Republicans and Democrats—recognize that this is just old goods in a new wrapper. Instead, they want a new organization totally inside the Department of Homeland Security, which is exactly what the act they passed creating the new department calls for.

So why is the White House resisting? One reason may be that some lawmakers seem determined to use the new department to expand the federal work force, or to federalize financing for local police and emergency responders—a red flag for an administration concerned about increasing the size of the federal government. But a close look at the way our intelligence services operate shows why simply expanding existing counterterrorism organizations won't solve our problems.

Talk to intelligence professionals about their work, and you will hear them bat around this term: tradecraft. It's the combination of skills, procedures and, especially, the culture that guides them in their jobs. Tradecraft is similar to what people in the private sector call a business model, and just like any corporation, an intelligence organization develops its own tradecraft.

At the C.I.A., where I started my career, the "business model" goes something like this: "Collect information other countries don't want us to have. Deal with unsavory characters and organizations. And keep all of this a tightly guarded secret so we can keep doing it as long as possible."

Homeland security, however, requires a totally different business model: "Collect information from as many sources as possible. Get the product out quickly to thousands of local officials and emergency workers so they can anticipate threats and respond effectively. And do all of this while respecting the civil liberties of Americans."

Effective homeland intelligence will depend on people who can find blueprints for factories in Michigan, electric grids in California and communications lines in Kansas, and correlate them with other databases like visa records. They will need to schmooze with local Rotarians, religious leaders, city officials, civic groups and small-business owners—even journalists. In essence, the new department needs people who operate more or less the opposite of how C.I.A. analysts are trained to operate.

Intelligence organizations tend to fail when they are asked to perform missions outside their tradecraft. Thus if you press splendid foreign intelligence analysts into becoming military mission planners—as happened to the C.I.A. in the NATO campaign against Serbia—you may end up bombing the Chinese Embassy.

Simply put, the C.I.A. is not suited to the mission of homeland security. Its tradecraft is imbedded in everything from its training manuals to its computers. For example, because the agency deals in sensitive secrets, you need C.I.A. clearance, including a polygraph exam, to log on to its computer network. Even officials from other agencies with the highest government security clearances are banned. Thus if the Terrorist Threat Information Center answered to the C.I.A., it would be very hard for someone from a state or local government to get information unless a C.I.A. official decided the person had a "need to know."

This sort of impediment to information-sharing is exactly what the recent Congressional report says contributed to the Sept. 11 intelligence failure. It is why Congress correctly wants the secretary of homeland security, not the director of central intelligence, to have authority over collecting and releasing intelligence for our domestic defense.

Moreover, making sure the new agency gathers and assesses information efficiently may not be our greatest challenge—the real test will be how it combines that data with other relevant information and gets it all out to the people around the country who need to see it. And, deservedly or not, the F.B.I. and C.I.A. both come with baggage. Do we really want the C.I.A. keeping, say, databases containing the names of foreign-born American citizens? Do we really want the F.B.I. overseeing files on Americans who have never been suspected of a crime (as it did in J. Edgar Hoover's day)?

Starting from scratch is hard, but in this case it's the only way to ensure that Americans have the best defense possible against terrorism.

Bruce Berkowitz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an analyst at The Rand Corporation, is author of "The New Face of War."

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