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Post 9/11 and post Iraq-War U.S. Intelligence reforms

 

The political fallout and media interest in American intelligence gathering and implementation following 9/11 and the Iraq War, prompted the American government to reform various parts of the American intelligence community. This led the Bush (Junior) administration to pass an intelligence reform in 2004 based on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The 9/11 Commission found and highlighted intelligence failures within the community leading up to the 9/11 attacks. The Counterterrorism Centre (CTC) in the view of the 9/11 Commission had failed to analyse from the enemy’s perspective (‘red team’ analysis) and therefore failed to recognise that suicide terrorism had become a principle tactic of Middle Eastern Terrorists.[1]   The intelligence community as a whole had also not developed the requirements to gather intelligence on the threat of aircraft hijacking and therefore there were no such indicators for personnel to monitor.[2] Intelligence failures such as these led to the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), through the legislation passed by the Bush administration in 2004.[3]  The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) would overlook the whole intelligence community and become the central point of responsibility in coordinating efforts of the various intelligence departments.

The creation of such an office would ultimately tackle the apparent lack of communication between departments leading up to the 9/11 attacks. After all the intelligence community was aware that an attack was imminent weeks before it happened, but no one could determine how, where or when it would. [4] This was a move to tackle what the 9/11 Commission saw as a lack of unison within the intelligence community causing the intelligence failures that subsequently led to the attacks. The DNI would replace the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and would maintain as much leverage in the intelligence community as the old DCI, through the creation of centres such as the National Counterterrorism centre and the siphoning of staff from CIA to the National Intelligence Centre and thus treating the director of the CIA as a deputy.[5] Although this would improve intelligence flow between some departments, Richard K. Betts argues that the creation of more centres increases the risk of larger gaps in intelligence coverage as centres tend to focus excessively on old problems.[6] The creation of such centres would not tackle CTC’s failure to ‘join the dots’ leading up to the 9/11 attacks, if anything this suggests that the creation of more centres would increase this risk.

It would be harsh to put the blame solely on the CTC, as the reforms aimed to tackle the lack of interdepartmental communication regarding this intelligence failure. The CIA had taken too long to put terrorist Al Mihdhar on the state department watch list and did not notify FBI that he had a visa allowing repeated travel to the U.S., on top of this the FBI was focused mostly on investigating for criminal prosecuting rather for general intelligence gathering, and confusion about legal requirements blocked the sharing of information.[7] The creation of the DNI was implemented to help departments work together and create an intelligence community that could coordinate efforts on counterterrorism. In the view of the 9/11 Commission the intelligence community had failed to provide the needed ‘warning’ that such as attack was imminent. However the FBI issued more than ‘200 warnings the year of the attack, 6 of them mentioning airports or airlines’, the CTC had also expressed deep concerns that upcoming attacks would be ‘larger and more deadly’, just months before 9/11.[8] This would suggest that it wasn’t a failure in the collection of the intelligence, as the community was aware of a threat, but more how the intelligence was used and analysed. The important signals intelligence was not translated until after the attacks, this is the type of intelligence failure that Betts refers to as an ‘inherent enemy of intelligence’.[9] It is near impossible to uncover important intelligence in the mass of signals intelligence and ‘chatter’ even if analysts have a clear reference or the intelligence agency has a mass workforce.

The intelligence community could shift to the use of more concise methods of intelligence gathering, such as human intelligence, as Betts states ‘the best way to intercept attacks is to penetrate the organisations’.[10] Although the same can be said for signals intelligence, there is a risk of false intelligence and the development of credible worldwide HUMINT networks can take years to develop and can force cooperation with unsavoury individuals. The use of HUMINT would also highlight the ethnocentric failures of analysts in the American intelligence community. The CTC had failed to identify the use of suicide terrorism within Al Qaeda’s tactics and culture. How can the intelligence community fight an enemy that it does not fully understand? Betts suggests that to fully tackle the problem a ‘mass revision of educational norms and the restoration of the prestige of public services are needed,’ however this would take years to achieve.[11] This leads to the revision of the intelligence communities ‘warning threshold’ as the intelligence community knew an attack was imminent before 9/11 but no action was taken. Betts suggests that there is no perfect threshold, as a threshold that is too sensitive carries a ‘cry wolf’ aspect in contrast to a threshold that is too high that increases the risk of attack.[12] Betts view of intelligence is that it is a system that should be viewed as one that is a ‘glass half full’ rather than an empty vessel.  Intelligence can only act on the information it receives and successfully analyses. The 9/11 attacks were blamed by the 9/11 Commission, on the intelligence communities failure to ‘join the dots’, on the other hand the false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a case of joining dots that were not there, possibly due to pressure from the policymakers and government themselves.

The reforms of 2004 also called for a better relationship between policymakers and intelligence analysts. Betts suggests that the policymakers were at just as much fault as the intelligence agencies leading up to 9/11 as the Bush administration failed to make counterterrorism as high a priority as the intelligence community suggested.[13] This is further supported by an article in The New York Times by 28 year CIA veteran Paul R. Pillar as he wrote that ‘policy change generally only comes as a result from disasters’ and are rarely implemented before, as ‘repeated warnings from intelligence are usually deemed not sufficient enough to change national priorities’.[14] This suggests a lack of understanding between the needs of each of the policymaker and intelligence analyst. This is apparent regarding the search for WMD’s in Iraq, as although the relationship is unclear, there is an argument that intelligence became politicised, and intelligence was influenced by policymakers needs.[15]

There was much political pressure on intelligence to find policymakers a credible political reason to go into Iraq. In Ex-Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz’s view, the closer the relationship between policymaker and intelligence analyst the better. He goes on to state that the analyst has to ‘understand the policymaker’s intense commitment to the success of his policy and that challenges to policy assumptions have to be handled carefully.’[16] Betts has his own take on Wolfowitz’s theory as he claims that when tension emerges between the policymakers and analysts, politicisation is inevitable, after all intelligence serves policy.[17] Betts suggests that politicisation is an innocent enemy of intelligence as the roots of politicisation lie within the contradictions between the analytical process of professional norms and political unity, and of the accuracy needed in analysis and influence over policy.[18] Because intelligence ultimately serves policy, and intelligence often works through calculated predictions of raw intelligence, whereas policymakers need hard facts, the solution needed is more than a closer relationship. Based on the lack of WMD’s in Iraq, a higher ‘warning threshold’ and action only on accurate intelligence could be one such solution however, such a solution can still lead to complacency and therefore the risk of acting too late. It must also be noted that an relationship that is too distant between policymaker and analysts can also cause problems, as the analysts ‘have no way of knowing whether the policymakers want, need, or even use the “objective analysis” they churn out.’[19]

The creation of the DNI and the centralisation of the intelligence community due to the lack of cooperation between departments leading up to 9/11, would improve the efficiency of the organisation. Centralisation can also however, lead to overconcentration on a single task and suppress diversity and innovation of independent agencies.[20] This can be tackled if each department is allocated funds by an independent source of which has no vested interest in the intelligence community. However, Robert Gates former Director of Central Intelligence argues that unless ‘the DNI had authority over 80 percent of the annual intelligence budget allocated to the Pentagon, the DNI would be ineffectual’.[21] Too much decentralisation however, can create duplication and inefficiency but through overlapping responsibilities increase the level of coverage.[22] Betts suggests that the intelligence community should be decentralised to give operators and analyst’s latitude in thinking and problem solving but also centralised to ensure prompt and coordinated responses to intelligence threats.[23] This would call for better methods of coordination between departments, which would be achieved through the oversight of the DNI, but runs the risk of an intelligence community that has narrow goals and coverage, rather than one that tackles a wide range of potential national threats.

There is no easy fix to intelligence and the reforms often focus too much on the failures on intelligence rather than its many successes. Betts states that many reformers have very little knowledge of the intelligence process and therefore lack the ‘perspective’ to solve the deeper problems within intelligence.[24] Betts also argues that many prosecutors of intelligence fail to recognise the role of outside enemies and the fact that intelligence faces a battle against ‘conscious counterstrategies’.[25] Intelligence has many problems that cannot be resolved, which suggests that, the American intelligence community is not as strong as the weapons it possesses but is as strong as the weapons that its enemies do not possess.


[1] The 9/11 Commission Report, Final Report on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004, p. 347

[2] The 9/11 Commission Report, Final Report on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004, p. 347

[3] Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, The Cultural Revolution in Intelligence: Interim Report, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2. 2008 pp. 47–61 p.47

[4] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 105

[5] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 154

[6] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 154

[7] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 154

[8] Joshua Rovner, Why Intelligence isn’t to Blame for 9/11, MIT Centre for International Studies, 05-13, 2005, p. 1

[9] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 14

[10] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, ColumbiaUniversity Press 2007, p. 128

[11] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, ColumbiaUniversity Press 2007, p. 132

[12] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 23

[13] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, ColumbiaUniversity Press 2007, p. 106

[14] Paul R. Pillar. “A Scapegoat is not a Solution.” New York Times. 4th June 2004.

[15] Robert Jervis, Reports, Politics and Intelligence Failures: The Case of Iraq, The Journal of Strategic Studies vol. 29, no. 1, 2006, pp. 3 – 52, p.6

[16] Jack Davis, Paul Wolfowitz on Intelligence Policy-Relations, CIA Studies, 1996, pp.35-42. p. 40

[17] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 67

[18] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 69

[19] Kerbel and Olcott. “The Intelligence-Policy Nexus: Synthesizing with Clients, Not Analyzing for Customers.” Studies in Intelligence 54, no. 4 (Dec. 2010): 1-13, p. 12

[20] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 148

[21] Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, The Cultural Revolution in Intelligence: Interim Report, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2. 2008 pp. 47–61 p.49

[22] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 148

[23] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 149

[24] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 3

[25] Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, Knowledge & Power in American National Security, Columbia University Press 2007, p. 11

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