Is Bush Serious About a New Spy System?

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Here is an indisputable fact: the United States needs a single, unified computer network that contains—at the very least—all the available information on the world's bad guys. This was the primary recommendation of the 9/11 commission. The FBI needs to know what the CIA knows about, say, the mythical terrorist Mahmoud Shimon O'Hara, and vice versa—and both agencies need to be alerted immediately if O'Hara tries to enter the country or has a phone conversation overheard by the National Security Agency (NSA). Everyone from the President to the customs cops stamping passports at LAX agrees this is a necessity.

We are probably not going to build that system anytime soon. Congress has tried to do it twice in the past two years, and failed both times. First, it created the Department of Homeland Security, which included a whole new bureaucracy—the office of Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection—to build the system. But IAIP was almost immediately mugged by the CIA, which backed a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center to do much the same thing. The Pentagon and the FBI ignored both efforts, in the classic passive-aggressive manner of turf-obsessed bureaucrats.

The second attempt, now comatose, was the National Intelligence Reform Act—the brisk congressional response to last summer's findings of the 9/11 commission. The bill would have created a National Intelligence director to ride herd over the CIA, NSA, parts of the FBI and assorted other intel agencies. The czar would have had budgetary authority and also the power to "design" and "implement" the unified computer network. But two House Republican committee chairmen decided to croak the bill on the weekend before Thanksgiving—in large part because the reform was opposed by the Pentagon, which controls 80% of the intelligence budget. An effort is being made to revive it, but don't hold your breath.

And perhaps be grateful: even though the goals of the reform bill were the right ones, I'm not convinced that it would have gotten the job done. It could easily have become a familiar legislative charade—a "reform" is passed, there's a nice bill-signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, various pols (including the President) get to take credit, but nothing really changes ... except for the accretion of another sedimentary layer of semi-powerless bureaucracy. In truth, it is impossible for Congress to reorganize the inner workings of the Executive Branch without the full support of the President, and I'm not so sure George Bush really favored either one of the attempted reforms.

Neither of the two bills emanated from the White House. Homeland Security came from congressional Democrats; Intelligence Reform from the 9/11 commission. Both ideas sprouted during election seasons; both were popular. Bush opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security before he favored it—and he has been unwilling to do the head cracking necessary to ensure that his friend, Secretary Tom Ridge, has the authority to do his job. Bush was dragged into supporting intelligence reform by John Kerry's imprudent campaign demand that the 9/11 commission recommendations be enacted immediately—without any input from, or negotiation with, the entrenched panjandrums of the intelligence community. "You can't do intelligence reform without a clear vision and direct marching orders from the President," 9/11 commission member Bob Kerrey told me last week. "If you create an Intelligence Czar, but the President doesn't want to back him fully and give him real authority to build the network, then you might as well deep-six the bill."

As it happens, the President does have a clear vision about intelligence reform, and it may not include the bureaucratic reshuffling suggested by the 9/11 commission. Bush, as always, is more interested in action than information. He wants a more aggressive spy service—a good thing. But he also wants a more compliant spy service—not such a good thing. He has hired Porter Goss to achieve both goals at the CIA. He has also issued a series of memos that begin to lay out his vision: one supports a 50% increase in the number of covert operatives—an excellent idea. Another seems to support the transfer of operational control over the use of covert force from the CIA to the Pentagon. That may not be a bad idea, either, but it feeds a fear among some intelligence professionals that with the CIA in tatters, power may shift, subtly, toward the Secretary of Defense. "The militarization of intelligence is a real worry," an intelligence expert told me—and Donald Rumsfeld's intense and, according to several sources, continuing covert opposition to the 9/11 intel recommendations only reinforces those fears.

The Secretary of Defense has a dreadful track record when it comes to intelligence. In Bush's first term, Rumsfeld set up an Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon to challenge the CIA's cautious analysis of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction by touting the incendiary garbage provided by Iraqi exiles. That is, I suppose, a version of intelligence reform: a system in which fantasies are produced to support the President's policy preferences. But it is not the version proposed by the 9/11 commission—and it is time for Bush to make clear whether he supports the commission or his Defense Secretary. He cannot support both.