- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

President Bush’s decision to give the new national intelligence director broader authority and substantial control of the intelligence budget signals that both the administration and the Congress are on a fast track to intelligence reform. This is a wrongheaded move driven by the politics of September 11. Any legislation that could be passed this year would likely be either weak or a firm step in the wrong direction. The issues surrounding intelligence reform are complex and the contending interests powerful. The politics are heated and there is no consensus on what should be done.

The situation is similar to that of the early 1980s, when a majority of Americans came to believe that the nation’s military establishment needed a major overhaul. The struggle for military reform began seriously in 1981, when then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff David Jones spoke out publicly about the problems within the military command system.

However, even with his support, it took five years to reach consensus on what should be done and to maneuver the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act through Congress. The far-reaching legislation strengthened joint military institutions at the expense of the individual armed services and has proven to be a huge success. Had congressional leaders tried to act hastily, say on the heels of the disastrous Beirut intervention in 1982, which helped crystallize the consensus for reform, they would have failed miserably.

Today, there is broad agreement that we need to reform the intelligence apparatus. But there are many contending ideas about what exactly should be accomplished. And the less visible question of how to bring about meaningful change, despite the opposition of those powerful organizations whose interests are being challenged, is no less important.

Politicians focus on organizational charts because they are tangible ways of doing business that can be made and unmade through legislation and executive orders. Yet, rearranging the deck chairs is only part of the problem. The real problems with organizations typically lie in process — that is, the way business is done — and in the culture of its personnel — that is, their basic values and ways of thinking.

Goldwater-Nichols did much more than reorganize the military command structure. It set up new rules for career advancement and other personnel incentives that made talented military officers want to be part of joint organizations and to make them work. Thus, any change to the intelligence community must ensure that new processes and personnel incentives are the first issues to be addressed, so that problems such as stove-piping and group-think, so well- documented by the September 11 commission, can be corrected.

Congressional reformers also need to understand that the executive branch will oppose real change and that it will play dirty. Organizational reform is not a subject of academic interest to the powerful institutions whose interests are at stake. Individuals who have invested their lives in particular agencies and certain ways of doing things quite naturally believe they are doing them correctly — to say nothing of wanting to retain the power, perks and influence on policy that now come with the job.

Such beliefs are not confined to careerists. The Navy strongly opposed military reform in the 1980s, just as it had opposed creation of the Defense Department in the 1940s. Its able then-Secretary John Lehman (ironically, a member of the September 11 commission) pulled out all the stops to try and derail the legislation. Navy contractors were deployed to lobby members of Congress and some of Mr. Lehman’s more aggressive subordinates even impugned the patriotism of the members of Congress pushing for change. Similarly, the White House opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and later the formation of the September 11 commission. In both cases the executive branch ultimately relented, but not without a fight. Intelligence reformers need to “red-team” the opposition and prepare for the inevitable counterattack.

While political imperatives will ensure rhetorical support for “reform” from the president, the strong opposition of the agencies directly affected makes it difficult for the White House to support meaningful change. This will be true whether George W. Bush or John F. Kerry is in residence. Ronald Reagan supported military reform during the 1980 campaign, but once his administration took office, Navy opposition ensured that the president withheld support.

Defense reform succeeded primarily due to the dedicated efforts of a small group of senators and congressmen from both parties. The bipartisan champions of intelligence reform in the two chambers are not yet evident and may be difficult to find this year given the partisan nature of the debate. This is reason enough to defer the effort to the next Congress. The nation’s most fundamental security interests are at stake in reforming the intelligence community, and the actors in the debate are very powerful. Rushing to judgment in the heat of an election campaign would be a mistake of the greatest proportions.

Barry M. Blechman is the president of DFI International Inc. In the 1980s, he directed a think-tank project which helped build the widespread political consensus behind the Goldwater-Nichols legislation.

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