- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

For those not intimately familiar with our national intelligence system and its various operations, it is important to understand that covert action, executed solely at the president’s direction to enhance foreign policies, is a key CIA capability and responsibility.

This unique and secretive function should have an important role in our consideration of a new director of national intelligence (DNI) and how the DNI and CIA director should best fit into our reformed intelligence system. Otherwise, the reorganization will confuse responsibilities at the top and result in unintended clashes and misunderstandings.

The most important intelligence function for our national security is collecting needed information by techniques ranging from overt to technical to espionage. This raw intelligence then is analyzed and refined into the best possible “finished” information for policymakers, Congress, and others such as military leaders and those charged with FBI and Homeland Security Department domestic concerns.

To obtain maximum objectivity, collection should be kept separate from analysis. This is especially true for collection via espionage, the CIA domain. Though this has been widely accepted as the best policy, it is not flawless. Analysis can err even with detailed secret intelligence. An unfortunate example is the Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel in October 1973. Nevertheless, the approach is basically sound.

As I have said earlier, if the intelligence system reorganization can have the DNI in charge of “finished” intelligence such as the President’s Daily Bulletin, other such reports and National Intelligence Estimates only if the DNI does not directly run the CIA or its successor. The latter would be solely a clandestine intelligence collection (espionage) and covert action agency.

As the covert action arm, the CIA is responsible directly to the president through the National Security Council for authority, special budgets and results.

It is important the CIA director, not the DNI, be held personally responsible for covert operations. If there is a major setback, as with the Bay of Pigs, the president may ask the CIA director to resign without any blowback on the DNI, who should remain objective and apart from the covert wing’s recommendations.

Further, covert operations easily become the objects of bipartisan battles, as in supporting the Contras in Central America. Thus the head of the covert action arm can be drawn into heated political exchanges and maneuvers.

In some cases, that is hardly avoidable.

But as we reform our system, we should keep the new DNI insulated from those squabbles to avid compromising the objectivity of our best intelligence estimates and products.

The British have proven this compartmentalization works well through their Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which provides policy-level intelligence to the political leadership but does not command the clandestine operations of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service.

In fact, the new system would give the president the advantage of the objective view of the DNI, as head of all collection and analysis. He could compare that with the view of the CIA director, who would manage covert action and have a more invested, narrower view, wanting a successful operation.

Let’s go back to the Bay of Pigs. If we had the proposed new system in those days, the CIA director might have assured the president the operation would succeed. The DNI might have advised that intelligence from all quarters globally indicated nearly no chance of success, the most objective view.

When Allen Dulles had to resign as a result of that operation’s failure, the head of our entire intelligence community was lost.

The worst extreme under a reform installing a DNI would be for the DNI to be forced to resign or be weakened significantly because of covert operational failures, responsibility for which would be left to the CIA as the clandestine intelligence service.

The same could happen with military operations in which the chief of staff might push a certain option while the DNI advised the defense secretary and president that the total intelligence picture did not portend success and could outline the wider negative and positive implications of such action.

In summary, this is a fine point those deciding upon the reform of our intelligence system should consider thoroughly.

James R. Fees served in the CIA for 25 years at home and abroad, including chief of station in three continents. He received numerous decorations for his service before resigning in 1980 to enter private international business.

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