Wednesday, December 08, 2004

A Director of exactly what?

Babble on.

The United States of America has a national security and intelligence apparatus that by any reckoning is among the world's foremost. Yet, shaken by the September 11th tragedy, our American friends have undertaken a massive review of their intelligence agencies, with an eye to substantive reform.

The most tangible result of that review is the intelligence-reform bill passed by the Senate today. A useful primer on that bill can be read here. The most radical change proposed by this legislation is the creation of a new Cabinet-level position: Director of National Intelligence. Originally, the September 11th commission envisioned this Director as a clearing-house for all intelligence matters, superceding both the CIA and Defense intelligence services, and reporting directly to the President. This vision has been somewhat watered-down by Washington realpolitik, but both the White House and Congress hailed the compromise bill as a determined step forward.

Fred Kaplan at Slate disagrees, and while his political spin may or may not be accurate, his exposure of the bill's most glaring weakness is right on target:

The Defense Department's "statutory responsibilities" for intelligence matters—which the bill says the new NID may not abrogate—are laid out in Title 10 of the U.S. Code (Chapter 21) and in DoD Directive 5100.20. They cover the personnel, operations, and budgets of not just the Defense Intelligence Agency (and its Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine sub-branches), but also the National Reconnaissance Office (which controls all spy satellites), the National Imagery and Mapping Agency* (which selects the routes for those satellites), and, most critically, the National Security Agency (the largest U.S. intelligence apparatus, which handles electronic and communications intercepts).

All told, these activities comprise about 80 percent of the U.S. intelligence community's budgets. In short, this "reform" bill places about 80 percent of the entity that's supposedly being reformed outside the control of the official—the new national intelligence director—who is supposedly the reform's centerpiece.

Budgets don't tell the whole story, of course. The U.S., more than any other nation, utilizes ultra-high-tech information-gathering methods. No legislation would have made those tools of the trade - America's great advantage in this field - less expensive to develop, employ, and maintain. While a fully-empowered DNI would have theoretically had control over those massive budgets, he undoubtedly would have found his hands tied if he wanted to retain the capabilities those budgets generated. In other words, it is a smart bet that much of the money in those out-of-reach budgets is effectively non-discretionary.

Having said that, one must agree with Kaplan's conclusion: taking even rubber-stamp decisions out of the hands of the new DNI is the surest way to render that official toothless and largely irrelevant in the intelligence community.

There will be a director of national intelligence. But the post will likely be a figurehead, at best someone like the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, at worst a thin new layer of bureaucracy, and in any case nothing like the locus of decision-making and responsibility that the 9/11 commission had in mind.

For a country supposedly interested only in itself, the United States certainly puts a great deal of serious thought into determining what happens outside their own borders. Whatever the consequences of the intelligence-reform bill, that will not change.

Babble off.


At 9:22 a.m., Blogger Greg said...

Your last paragraph leaves me a bit puzzled. Being interested in having accurate intelligence and national self interest are not mutually exclusive. In fact they seem to me to be essential. Otherwise, I agree with your doubts about the new position.


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