Is the Intelligence Community Ready for This War?

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Will heads roll at the CIA over the Sept. 11 attack that caught the agency and everyone else in the intelligence community by surprise? Lawmakers on Capitol Hill tell me that George Tenet's job as Director of Central Intelligence is safe for now. His boss, George W. Bush, drove to the CIA headquarters last week to give Tenet a hug and publicly let the agency know that he doesn't believe they failed him. That sent a powerful signal to Capitol Hill. Bush doesn't like firing people and doesn't want to ax a CIA director in the middle of a war, so Tenet stays where he is. "He has the president's ear and the president considers him a very valuable resource," says Sen. Pat Roberts, a GOP member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And save for the Senate panel's senior Republican member, Sen. Richard Shelby, no one in Congress is calling for Tenet's head.

But in private, even within the Bush administration, there's disquiet after the Sept. 11 attack. "It was an abject intelligence failure," says a White House aide. "They didn't see it coming, they didn't analyze it, they didn't locate or disrupt it. It's just that simple. Their mission is to provide timely intelligence to prevent acts of terrorism from occurring both at home and abroad. They didn't do that."

The failure was not the CIA's alone. The FBI is in charge of collecting intelligence in the U.S. to combat terrorism as well and the bureau was caught just as flatfooted as the agency. The entire intelligence community — which stretches from the CIA to the FBI to intelligence services in the Pentagon and other cabinet departments — was ambushed on Sept. 11. Is the CIA up to fighting the war Bush has launched? The more accurate question is whether the entire intelligence community is up to that fight, since by budget size and manpower the agency is only a small part of that community. The CIA is one of at least 28 intelligence organizations in the U.S. government. It's budget of about $3 billion is about one tenth the size of the total intelligence community budget of $30 billion (90% of the budget lies within the Pentagon). And the some 17,000 CIA employees represent only about 13% of the some 80,000 people total involved U.S. intelligence.

So is the intelligence community ready for this war? Bravado from Bush and senior officials aside, no one is quite sure. "They're more optimistic that they can do a better job," says Sen. Roberts. "But I remain frustrated about our ability." As with previous breaches in U.S. security, Congress will convene hearings to probe what went wrong and dust off proposals to revamp the intelligence community. Agency heads will make a show of working together, there will be attempts at more collaboration, more sharing of information and integration of equipment. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge is Bush's new homeland security chief with an open door to the Oval Office and Bush's ear. But across the vast U.S. intelligence bureaucracy the momentum will be powerful to return U.S. intelligence to its old ways of doing business. "We'll deal with it," admits a senior Pentagon aide. "But we'll probably muddle through in a less than optimal fashion."

The U.S. intelligence community is like a house, never built with a blueprint whose architecture is now outdated, but it's a house where rooms keep being added. The budgeting process for the community is in shambles. Tenet, as director of intelligence, has management authority over the $30 billion budget. But among different agencies fighting for dollars "there's been an abysmal lack of coordination," admits a senior Pentagon official.

Each agency, by and large, puts together its own budget and decides independently what spy equipment — such as satellites, reconnaissance planes and electronic hardware — it wants to build. There is very little cross-referencing at the beginning of projects to avoid duplication, and even fewer tradeoffs made in programs. "We don't have a place where it all comes together," says a senior administration official. By the time Tenet and his intelligence community staff review all the programs each year, their budgets are pretty well set and little is changed.

The results of this hodgepodge can be felt as U.S. forces now begin attacks. Over the past five years, for example, the CIA has invested billions of dollars to build and launch into space about a half dozen new spy satellites, each costing about a billion dollars. But over the same period, the Pentagon built fewer than 60 of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at about $3 million a copy.

The result? The expensive satellites zip across Afghanistan at 17,500 miles an hour snapping quick sets of photos for a few seconds each day. In the intervals when the satellites reappear over the target, whatever was on the ground before has probably moved. The cheaper Predator, on the other hand, is far more useful for commandos in the field because it can loiter over an area for up to 40 hours taking videos and still shots. But with little money going to the program recently, there's a shortage of Predators, which turns out to be what commandos need more of in Afghanistan. The U.S. Central Command is now scrambling to borrow Predators from other commands because it's short of the valuable aircraft.

Tenet has privately admitted that the intelligence community he oversees needs fixing. Five days after the Sept. 11 attack, he fired off a harshly worded directive to the spy agencies under him declaring it was time for them to put aside their bureaucratic battles and turf wars and begin working together. You don't write that kind of memo if your operation is running smoothly. "We're at war," Tenet declared in his memo. The test now will be whether he can get this community to fight as one against the enemy, instead of fighting with itself.