Don't Move Too Fast on Intelligence Reform


Aug 17, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on August 17, 2004.

With new warnings of terrorist attacks in the United States, many elected officials and candidates for office are understandably eager to show they are responding as rapidly as possible to protect homeland security. This has set off a race to see who can be fastest to push for implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission —at a time when careful deliberation is the most prudent course.

Many of the Commission's 41 recommendations in its report running nearly 600 pages are sensible steps relating to policy and strategy that can be easily embraced. But the key recommendations calling for the creation of a National Terrorism Intelligence Center and a Cabinet-level National Intelligence Director to oversee all U.S. intelligence activities would represent the most profound reorganization of intelligence since the creation of the CIA in 1947. These are major steps that will be difficult to reverse if they turn out to be more harmful than helpful. So they require close examination.

Taking adequate time to review the implications of a major reorganization of the U.S. intelligence system is not a defense of the status quo. Nor should delay imply any particular objection to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and the meticulous staff work and lively debate that back them up. Instead, delay can be used to give elected officials and their staffs time for careful analysis of the 9/11 Commission report.

There are four key arguments for slowing down the drive to implement all the 9/11 Commission recommendations at the earliest possible date.

First, the proposals deserve more serious attention than they are likely to get now.

The 9/11 Commission spent 21 months in public hearings and private debate. Its staff has done a masterful job of collecting and assembling a vast amount of material. The product is a rich report that needs to be read carefully, and legislation required to implement the recommendations needs to be precisely crafted. That will not happen in a hurried session, especially with members of Congress eager to get back to their home states to campaign for re-election.

Second, terrorists launch deadly attacks against their innocent victims without regard to the political affiliation of their targets. The most effective way to counter terrorism is for Democrats and Republicans to unite in a nonpartisan front to fight the terrorists. But with less than three months to Election Day in the United States, asking elected officials to ignore partisanship right now is an almost impossible request. No one would benefit if the 9/11 Commission—s report became enmeshed in partisan wrangling that resulted in legislation focused more on good politics than good policy.

Third, if the United States is going to reorganize the national intelligence apparatus, elected officials should benefit from findings of other commissions that have studied the American intelligence system in the last few years. These include the 1999 Commission headed by former CIA Director John Deutch, the 2000 National Commission on Terrorism headed by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the Commission on National Security in the 21st Century chaired by former Sens. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), and a commission headed by former Gov. James Gilmore (R-Va.) that spent five years working with RAND Corporation researchers to assess the domestic response capabilities for terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction. The CIA has just completed its own inquiry into intelligence failures before the Iraq War, and another commission studying intelligence failures before the Iraq war will issue its report in March.

Fourth, while the 9/11 Commission argues that the United States is not safe yet, government reorganization by itself will not make Americans safer. Reorganization will not solve problems of inadequate intelligence sources, insufficient resources or bad analysis. And it could become a major distraction. All major reorganizations are complicated, in government as well as in the private sector. In the private sector, some reorganizations and mergers work. Competition quickly imposes corrections. In government, a bad organizational solution can lead to protracted dysfunction. This does not mean the U.S. government cannot reorganize in the midst of a war, but to do so on the fly on the eve of an election while the terrorist threat remains high is risky.

The United States would be best served by extending the life of the 9/11 Commission to ensure its continued influence, comparing its recommendations with those resulting from other official inquiries and then making intelligence reorganization the priority task of the new Congress. Avoid the quick fix and do it right.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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