Questions of national security: what to believe?

There is a natural tension in a free society between the need for secrecy on matters of national security, and the need for openness and disclosure about what our government is doing.There are legal, and practical, limits to what the media can report about the intelligence community (CIA, NSA, etc.); recently, those limits have been stretched.

Most of what has surfaced publicly (in the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today) on the Bush Administration's domestic surveillance program, and on the reasons for recent shake-up at the CIA, has come from leaks.

The problem becomes: what can be believed? And, more importantly, what is the significance of some of what we are learning?

Watching the coverage over the past several weeks has raised a number of questions in my mind–questions that are not being fully addressed, or answered, by the elite media. Partly this is because, I would argue, that reporters on the national security beat are held captive by their sources. The potential for manipulation is greater when reporting on intelligence issues, because there are fewer ways to double check or verify what is being leaked. The result is coverage that is less than complete.

Here are five of those questions:

1). How had the CIA been performing under its recently ousted director Porter Goss?

The initial press reports suggested an Agency in turmoil, paralyzed by partisan in-fighting; those around DNI John Negroponte apparently spread the word that Goss' alleged mismanagement was the cause of his removal. The Washington Post's David Ignatius wrote a column entitled: "How the CIA Came Unglued." Conventional media wisdom was that Goss and his partisan "Gosslings" had damaged the CIA with heavy-handed management and an obsession with loyalty and plugging leaks.

But then a story by Mark Mazzetti appears on the front page of the New York Times (found here) casting some doubt on the Goss-as-hack frame:

For all its dysfunction and recent failures, the CIA that General Michael Hayden stands to inherit is far along a path toward rebuilding its network of foreign stations and replenishing ranks that were eviscerated during the years after the Cold War.

The rocky 19-month tenure of Porter Goss was characterized by turf battles and the bitter departure of many seasoned operatives. Yet it was also a time when a flood of new recruits entered the agency and the CIA opened or reopened more than 20 stations and bases abroad.

Some on the Right, such as Stephen F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard ("CIA 1–Bush 0") are arguing that Goss' attempts at reform were blocked by an "intransigent bureaucracy":

Goss arrived at the CIA with at least two goals: stemming the flow of leaks from the Agency and reforming the directorate of operations (DO). They were difficult tasks. The DO has long viewed itself as untouchable, a problem for a bureaucracy that emphasizes recruitment numbers over risk-taking, and budget increases over penetration of the enemy.

What Hayes can't explain is why the Bush Administration would abandon its choice for the CIA role after 18 months.

So what are we to believe?

2). Did the CIA need house-cleaning? Does it need further reform?

The 9/11 Commission concluded that CIA had failed on assessing the threat of Osama Bin Laden. The Senate Intelligence report found the same on the weapons of mass destruction question. Former CIA director George Tenet assured President Bush that Saddam's possession of WMD was a "slam dunk."

But now retired CIA officials and current intelligence operatives are apparently arguing that the CIA had it right in the past but was slighted, or ignored, by the Bush Administration. This revisionist view would maintain that the Goss reforms (firing or retiring Old Guard managers; moving assets into the field from headquarters; clamping down on leaks and CIA-authored books and articles) were unnecessary and damaged the Agency and its morale.

If the revisionists are right, then the massive reorganization of America's intelligence establishment is mistaken–an overreaction to a flawed analysis.

So what are we to believe?

3). Can an intelligence czar–the role now filled by Negroponte–improve American intelligence? Or does it promote groupthink–the very ill it was partially designed to cure?

The theory, as espoused by the 9/11 Commission and its advocates in Congress was that the DNI position would manage the numerous federal intelligence agencies, coordinating efforts and insuring that the President received the best intelligence analysis possible.

And yet the Negroponte record so far has been one of empire-building (twice the number of staffers as budgeted, according to some reports), an appetiite for political in-fighting, and little patience for dissent.

Further, Negroponte and those around him (including CIA director nominee Hayden) seem entranced by technology and Sigint (signals intelligence). While Hayden is paying lip service to the notion of supporting human intelligence collection by the CIA, it's hard to imagine he can overcome an NSA world view fixated on gathering and analyzing emails and cell phone calls.

So what are we to believe?

4). What are we to make of the NSA domestic surveillance program? A lawless threat to privacy? An effective tactic against terrorists? Or "whiz bang" technology in search of an application?

The USA Today story that the National Security Agency had been compiling the phone records of millions of Americans raised fears in Congress among both Republicans and Democrats about possibly illicit domestic spying. That General Hayden was the architect of the program makes it even more troubling to some.

What has been lost in the uproar over the legality of the program is the question of effectiveness. What little reporting on the subject I've seen has suggested that the data mining and phone surveillance has produced little, if any, actionable intelligence, at an unknown cost.

So what are we to believe?

5). Will this new, centralized approach to intelligence safeguard us against terrorist attack? Will the President receive better assessments of other threats, like the Iranian nuclear program?

Jurist Richard A. Posner has argued that the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (the product of the 9/11 Commission's findings) overestimated the benefits of centralized control over intelligence; Posner has further questioned whether such reforms would prevent surprise attacks.

The assumption is that a "fixed" centralized intelligence system will allow the U.S. to thwart planned terrorist attacks, and an intelligence czar will provide accurate strategic intelligence to policy makers–avoiding the "slam dunk" analytical mistakes of the past.

My experience with centralization and the culture of large organizations makes me question this assumption; further, in a networked world, where flexibility and speed are at a premium, it is hard to embrace any solution that involves more bureaucracy and slights the human factor.

So what are we to believe?

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!