Revisiting Intelligence Reform

As the Bush administration winds up nearly seven years of intelligence fiascos, a quiet revolution has been going on at the Pentagon, which controls more than 80% of America’s $60 billion intelligence budget. Since taking over from Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in winter 2006, Robert Gates has greatly scaled down the Pentagon’s footprint on national security policy and intelligence. Working closely with Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Michael McConnell, he has slowly begun to assert civilian control over the key spy agencies funded by the defense budget and halted the Pentagon’s efforts to create its own intelligence apparatus independent of the CIA. The recent intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in contradicting early administration assertions, is perhaps the most significant sign of this newly won independence.

Those are significant actions. Under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon had become the dominant force in U.S. intelligence, with vast new powers in human intelligence and counterterrorism, both at home and abroad. By 2005, it was deploying secret commando units on clandestine missions in countries as far afield as the Philippines and Ecuador, sometimes without consulting with the local U.S. ambassadors and CIA station chiefs. At some point, President George W. Bush and his national security team apparently decided that the genie had to be put in the bottle, and sent Gates – a former CIA director who had worked closely with Vice President Dick Cheney during the first Bush administration – to put the kibosh on Rumsfeld’s private intelligence army.

But these efforts by Gates and McConnell to demilitarize U.S. Intelligence will never succeed until Congress, with the support of the next administration, removes the three national collection agencies – the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – from the Pentagon’s command-and-control system and places them directly, like the CIA, under the control of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

That consolidation was one of the key recommendations made by the 9/11 commission that investigated the role of U.S. spying agencies prior to the terrorist attacks of 2001. This consolidation was supposed to happen under the 2004 intelligence reform bill that grew out of the commission’s deliberations. At the last minute, however, pro-military lawmakers supported by Rumsfeld stripped the language that would have done the trick out of the bill. Until Congress restores that provision, the bulk of intelligence spending – and therefore the critical decisions about how to deploy spying assets – will remain under military control.

Three National Collection Agencies

The NSA, the NGA, and the NRO are the crown jewels of America’s vast intelligence system and make up the most powerful surveillance and eavesdropping system on the planet. Together, the three agencies are responsible for about half of the $42 billion the government spends every year on its National Intelligence Program, which also includes the CIA and the much smaller intelligence units within the FBI and the Departments of State, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Energy. The rest of the intelligence budget goes to tactical intelligence units within the Pentagon and the Armed Services.

The NSA, as most American readers are increasingly aware, monitors billions of phone calls, e-mails, and Internet messages flowing through the global telecommunications system from listening posts throughout the world, and then analyzes them for possible clues to threats to the nation. It is led by Army Lt. General Keith Alexander, who has at his command a hugely expensive army of contractors providing cutting-edge technology in cryptology, data-mining, social network analysis, and super-computing, all of which are used to search telephone and Internet traffic for information about foreign leaders, military commanders, and trade negotiators, in addition to picking up chatter about terrorist organization and potential plots. Anyone who watched Colin Powell’s disastrous 2003 appearance before the UN Security Council should remember his display of three NSA intercepts of cell phone calls made by Iraqi military commanders – examples of the agency’s incredible ability to listen in on communications thousands of miles away.

The NGA was formally inaugurated as a combat support agency of the Pentagon in 2003, and is therefore less known to the American public. It supplies imagery and mapping products to the military and national leaders that are beamed to earth from photoreconnaissance planes, commercial and military satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Geospatial intelligence is used in everything from climate studies and human rights reporting to the tracking of enemy soldiers and insurgents in Iraq. The NRO, meanwhile, builds and maintains the spy satellites that feed the NSA and NGA and operates ground stations, both at home and abroad, where imagery and signals data is translated, analyzed, and sometimes combined.

These three agencies probably supply about 75% of the information that appears every morning in the presidential daily brief, which intelligence officials say has evolved into a multi-media presentation in which NSA phone intercepts compete with NGA imagery and live video streams for the president’s attention. As I’ve reported elsewhere, since 2004 the NSA and the NGA have also been collaborating closely – using the NGA’s “eyes” and the NSA’s “ears” – to create hybrid intelligence tools that are used primarily by the military. By combining intercepts of cell phone calls with overhead imagery gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), intelligence analysts can track suspected terrorists or insurgents in Iraq in real time. As these tools become available for use by domestic policing agencies, a possibility created by a new intelligence institution known as the National Applications Office[link to my recent article on the NAO – the power of the military to conduct both foreign and domestic intelligence will increase.

No Debate

For most of their existence, the Pentagon has controlled the NSA, NGA, and NRO, appointed their directors, and maintained ultimate authority over the information they collect and how it is used. These agencies, then, are essentially military assets, to be used as directed by the secretary of defense.

But there has been no public debate about this issue. Within the intelligence community, officials and contractors at the CIA and the NSA generally support the idea of a strong ODNI with authority over their budgets. But officials and contractors directly involved in defense intelligence – including the expensive communications and networking apparatus that supports the computerized, network-centric warfare of precision bombing practiced in Iraq – prefer working for the Pentagon. Any debate these two groups have, however, is held in secret and behind the closed doors of the intelligence-industrial complex.

One of the only voices to press the case for civilianized intelligence is Melvin Goodman, a former CIA officer at the Center for International Policy. Goodman resigned from the CIA over what he perceived as the politicization of Soviet analysis during the 1980s. In op-eds going back over a decade he has argued consistently for placing the three national agencies under control of a director of national intelligence. “The collection of strategic intelligence is being given short shrift because of the military’s emphasis on tactical intelligence and support for the warfighter,” Goodman told me in an interview for my forthcoming book on intelligence outsourcing. While the nation can’t deny intelligence support to warfighters in places like Iraq, “if you don’t get the job of strategic intelligence done correctly, you will blunder in your larger national security policies,” he says.

The penultimate example of such a blunder occurred in 1998, when U.S. intelligence failed to detect the Indian government’s planning for its first test of a nuclear weapon – a failure that led in part to the collapse of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. “I blame that in part on the collection requirements of the military dominating” the intelligence bureaucracy “and not being interested in arms control or the Indian subcontinent,” Goodman told me. Essentially, he said, the weapons test wasn’t picked up because U.S. spy satellites had not been programmed to tip toward India in the crucial weeks leading up to the test. Intelligence leaders “have a list of priorities, and the satellite collection corresponds to one, two, and three priorities, and arms control wasn’t one of them,” he said. And because the Pentagon wasn’t particularly interested in arms control, what was happening on the Indian subcontinent merited little attention.

That incident underscores that decisions about how and what intelligence is collected at any given time are deeply political, and should be carried out by elected national officials whose interests go beyond immediate military goals. Consider the NGA and its considerable abilities to provide overhead imagery and mapping tools. During the 1990s, when the NGA was known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), an analyst assigned to monitor satellite imagery from the Balkans began to compare what he was seeing on the ground in Bosnia to past photographs of the area. Working on his own time late at night, he noticed that certain towns in Bosnia showed unmistakable signs of ethnic cleansing, including destroyed mosques and what looked very much like mass graves. The analyst brought his findings to the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, which realized their importance and showed them to senior officials from the State Department and the National Security Council. Using that evidence, the Clinton administration charged the government of Serbia with crimes against humanity – an event that led directly to the NATO bombing campaign. Whether one agrees or not with the NATO response, the imagery became a powerful tool for the Clinton administration.

This link between intelligence-gathering and administration action happened because Clinton’s government – and that individual analyst – was deeply concerned about the Balkans. The same tools in the hands of officials concerned about the plight of indigenous people in, say, Guatemala, could have turned up similar evidence of crimes by the Guatemalan military against its people, in numbers far greater than those in the Balkans. Similarly, human rights groups are today using unclassified commercial imagery to track ethnic cleansing in Darfur and Burma (or Myanmar, as that country’s military government calls itself). Because the NGA is a combat agency of the Pentagon, however, its tools – which include both unclassified imagery purchased from commercial satellite vendors and classified imagery supplied by U.S. spy satellites – are at the command of military leaders, who make the ultimate decisions about where to aim their cameras. That is the legacy of military control over the national agencies, a process that deepened during the first six years of the Bush administration.

Rumsfeld’s Consolidation

Donald Rumsfeld came to office in 2001 determined to restore the power of the intelligence community after what he considered the benign neglect of the Clinton administration. During the 1990s, as chairman of a national commission examining the proliferation of ballistic missiles, Rumsfeld had become skeptical of the CIA’s analyses and came away convinced that the CIA was underestimating the threat of nuclear weapons from North Korea, Iran, and other so-called “rogue” nations. “Rumsfeld’s view was that the CIA was frequently too rigid or too timid – or maybe both,” Michael Isikoff and David Corn wrote in Hubris, their fascinating book about the administration’s misuse of intelligence. In a 2001 meeting with Republican lobbyists described in the book, Rumsfeld “used the occasion to rail at the CIA” and declared: “I’m going to create my own intelligence agency.”

Rumsfeld’s first move in that direction was the creation of a new office within the Pentagon: under secretary for intelligence. Created by an act of Congress in 2002, the position was taken by Stephen Cambone, a neoconservative who had worked closely with Rumsfeld during the 1990s as staff director of the Rumsfeld commission on ballistic missiles. The new position gave enormous powers to Cambone. Under the new law, the Pentagon’s intelligence chief exercises the secretary of defense’s “authority, direction and control” over all DOD intelligence, counterintelligence and security policy, plans, and programs, and serves as the Pentagon’s representative to the DNI. That specifically meant control over the NGA, NSA, and NRO. The new assistant secretary was also responsible for finding candidates to direct those agencies.

Before Rumsfeld and Cambone could consolidate their intelligence empire, however, they had to confront the growing public demands for the establishment of a director of national intelligence with budgetary authority over the entire intel community, from the CIA to the NSA, who would have power to shift resources and personnel at quick notice. The issue came to a head in 2004 with the final report of the 9/11 commission, which argued strongly against the consolidation of intelligence within the Pentagon and recommended the transfer of the three national agencies to the DNI. Under its proposal, budgetary authority over the three “nationals” would be passed to the DNI, while control over tactical intelligence by the four armed services would remain under the domain of the Department of Defense. Those proposals were folded into the intelligence reform legislation backed by President Bush. Both houses of Congress passed the bills. When the bills went into conference, however, they ran into a storm of opposition from pro-military lawmakers.

Led by Rep. Duncan Hunter(R-CA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, they argued that the transfer of authority over the national agencies to the DNI would weaken the power of the Pentagon to wage war. In effect, Hunter fought a rear-guard action on behalf of Rumsfeld and Cheney, who could not openly oppose legislation that their commander-in-chief supported. According to Washington Post political reporter David Broder, many Republicans were comfortable opposing Bush because they believed the legislation “had not originated with Bush but was in effect forced on him by the commission.” Hunter’s maneuvers stopped the intelligence bill dead in its tracks.

After weeks of delay, Cheney stepped in to negotiate a provision that met the demands of the pro-military lawmakers that guaranteed direct access to intelligence for military commanders. Afterwards, Hunter – who is now a Republican candidate for president – explained how the provision would work. In a wartime scenario, he told reporters, “it’s important for the combatant commanders and their subordinates, whether it’s a platoon leader in Fallujah or a Special Forces team leader, to able to access that information very quickly.” That intelligence, he pointed out, included satellite surveillance. The die was cast: henceforth, the NSA, the NGA and the NRO would remain under the Pentagon’s control.

Consolidation Continues

After winning the battle for control over the NSA, NGA, and NRO, Rumsfeld and Cambone set to work institutionalizing that control within the Department of Defense. Even before the ink was dry on the reform legislation, Rumsfeld was circulating a directive instructing regional military commander to create a plan for an expanded Pentagon role in military intelligence. In December 2004, U.S. Army Lt. General William G. Boykin, the controversial general chosen by Cambone as his deputy, proposed a major expansion of human intelligence gathering within the Pentagon, “both within the military services and the (DIA), including more missions aimed at acquiring specific information sought by policy makers.” Boykin also wanted military planners to work “more closely with the intelligence analysts” tracking terrorists and insurgency cells. “We’ve got to recognize intel as a war-fighting component,” he said.

By 2005, special forces units under control of the Pentagon were routinely entering countries like Somalia and Iran to launch covert military operations. The NSA, NGA, and NRO were enlisted to play key roles in Rumsfeld’s “transformation” of the military through network-centric warfare: NSA signals and NGA imagery intelligence are now cornerstones of this 21st-century military doctrine. Military power in intelligence was also concentrated at home. In 2002, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz created the Counterintelligence Field Activity office, ostensibly to provide security at U.S. military bases. By 2004, however, it was spending millions of dollars a year to monitor the activities of American citizens, including thousands of people who were simply exercising their rights to protest U.S. foreign policy.

Over the next two years, Rumsfeld and Cambone took aggressive moves to diminish the DNI’s power. They made it harder to transfer defense intelligence officers into joint “fusion” centers run by the ODNI and the Department of Homeland Security. And when officials under their command took contrary positions , they took action. Rumsfeld was especially angered when the NGA Director, retired Air Force General James Clapper, told a Senate panel that his agency wouldn’t be harmed if it was put under DNI control. Rumsfeld called him to the Pentagon and told him he was out of line. A few months later, Rumsfeld let it be known that Clapper would not be reappointed when his term at the NGA expired in June 2005.

The End of the Rumsfeld Era

The appointment of Gates brought the Rumsfeld dream of Pentagon control over intelligence to an end. Almost immediately after Rumsfeld’s firing, key officials who led the Rumsfeld drive to dominate intelligence, including the neoconservative hawk Stephen Cambone and the controversial Army Lt. General William G. Boykin, were quickly shown the door and replaced. In a direct slap at Rumsfeld, Gates brought Clapper back into the Pentagon as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, replacing the neocon Cambone. Since then, Clapper has moved to dismantle some of Rumsfeld’s pet programs, including the infamous TALON database created to spy on American citizens.

In an important step last spring, Gates and McConnell jointly agreed that Clapper and future undersecretaries for intelligence will also report to the ODNI as the deputy for military intelligence. And McConnell, through his many appearances before Congress, is indisputably the top U.S. official for intelligence. His release this week of a National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran had stopped its nuclear program in 2003 underscored his agency’s independence from the Pentagon.

But bureaucratic maneuvers can only go so far in ending the Pentagon;s direction of intelligence. Only a change in law, taking the NSA, NGA and NRO out of the department’s hands and putting them under the direct control of the ODNI and the White House, will ensure that these agencies are under true civilian control. Carrying out the original mandate of the 9/11 commission will give future presidents greater control over those agencies and allow them to be used for broad national goals – including the protection of human rights and monitoring the environment – that will never be the top concerns of the military. Putting those assets under White House control won’t prevent future leaders from misusing them, as Bush and Cheney misused the NSA to spy on Americans. But it will provide a framework that could make intelligence collection a function of national leaders concerned with all aspects of national security, not just the tactical needs of the military.

FPIF contributor Tim Shorrock has been writing about U.S. foreign policy and national security for many years. His book on the outsourcing of U.S. intelligence will be published in May 2008 by Simon & Schuster. He can be reached at timshorrock@gmail.com.