The attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day stands as a stark reminder to President Obama that intelligence failures endanger Americans, and that the political fallout from those failures can threaten his party’s hold on political power. On Tuesday, the president repeated earlier statements that the system had failed and ordered his intelligence advisers to complete preliminary reviews.
Some of the president’s challenges were created by his own party. During the Bush administration, CIA bureaucrats were a Democrat’s best friend, providing damning information on intelligence issues — Iraq weapons of mass destruction, terrorist interrogations, the Valerie Plame incident — which Democrats used to attack their political opponents. Liberal journalists, having built careers with the help of CIA leaks, are reluctant to confront CIA bureaucracy or to propose creative solutions because to do so would offend their sources within the intelligence community. Ideologically, Democrats have greater faith in the efficiency of top-down, centralized structures and have difficulty comprehending how dysfunctional a government agency can become.
The president needs to be wary of the two major intelligence reform proposals typically pushed by the intelligence bureaucracy and its allies.
The first is that the CIA needs five more years and a few billion more dollars to hire better people. Intelligence managers have said this every few years since the agency’s founding. In one of his few initiatives since taking charge, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta visited Michigan last September and pledged to hire more Arab-Americans. In fact, CIA employees have always been talented and intelligent, but they’re working inside a systemically dysfunctional organization.
The second false solution is that U.S. intelligence agencies need better interagency communication. The intelligence bureaucracy likes this because it lets them create ever more layers of managers, who swan about Washington area conference rooms “communicating.” What is needed is more intelligence operators on the ground, and the intelligence they gather must be sent to where it’s needed quickly.
The intelligence on Northwest Flight 253 was delivered to an American Embassy in Nigeria by the suspect’s father. But this information could not be processed through the masses of chiefs and deputy chiefs in the time needed, roughly five weeks. The enormous and redundant staffing of U.S.-based offices with administrators and managers, arranged in complex hierarchies, stifles the flow of intelligence coming in from the field.
With more than 90 percent of all CIA employees now living and working entirely within the United States, most CIA employees are far from the sources of intelligence needed to protect Americans. As the recent attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan showed, this places a heavy and dangerous burden upon the patriotic minority of CIA employees who are out in the field defending our country.
Mr. Obama took a step toward operational accountability by appointing Mr. Panetta as CIA chief. The selection was significant for what he was not: a career CIA bureaucrat. The important thing was that the new CIA chief be someone the president trusted. The CIA and its allies had championed one of their own, Steve Kappes, a man with excellent media and political connections, and a fierce defender of the status quo.
Unfortunately, Senate Democrats had cut a deal with the president in which Mr. Obama could have Mr. Panetta as CIA chief, but he had to keep Mr. Kappes as a powerful deputy. Mr. Panetta dutifully praised Mr. Kappes at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Surrounded by people who wanted his job, Mr. Panetta was quickly co-opted by the bureaucracy and became resistant to intelligence reform. The key metrics remained: No top manager has ever been disciplined, demoted, or even reassigned for failure to provide the intelligence the president needs, and no whistleblower or other financial accountability measure has been introduced.
Effective solutions for intelligence reform involve getting CIA officers on the streets of foreign countries where they can meet with sources and gather intelligence. The CIA also needs financial accountability and a whistle-blower system to account for the billions of dollars that disappeared into its contracting system after Sept. 11.
The American people understand that acts of terrorism can still happen, but that we must do our best to prevent them. The president may be able to win re-election, even in the face of a major intelligence failure, if he does his best to reform a corrupt and broken CIA.
• Ishmael Jones, a pseudonym, is former officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, and the author of “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture.”