Archive for Sunday, July 25, 2004

Centralized intelligence

A top official to coordinate America’s intelligence operations might prevent dangerous information gaps.

July 25, 2004

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The famous sign on former President Harry Truman's desk read, "The Buck Stops Here."

The need for the intelligence "buck" to have somewhere to land seems to be part of the rationale behind a recommendation by the 9-11 commission to establish a Cabinet-level director for United States intelligence efforts.

After a 20-month investigation into the 9-11 terrorist attack on America, the panel of five Republicans and five Democrats gave top priority to the appointment of an intelligence director with budget authority and power to oversee the 15-agency U.S. intelligence community. President Bush has not embraced the idea, and some members of Congress have expressed concern that the position would only add bureaucracy and politics to the business of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

More bureaucracy and politics obviously wouldn't benefit U.S. intelligence, but coordinating the efforts of various agencies to make sure they are working in cooperation and sharing important information seems like a step in the right direction. It's also important not to give agencies the opportunity to pass the "buck" to someone else, as often happens when a mistake is made.

The 9-11 commission's report makes it clear that many mistakes were made in the days leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. There is plenty of blame to go around, and assigning it to particular people shouldn't be the point. The point of the commission's probe was to identify constructive action toward preventing another disastrous attack.

Agencies like the FBI and CIA are based on secret, covert operations that make it unnatural to share everything they know. A lack of communication and attempts to protect intelligence "turf" can -- and have -- created dangerous information gaps that contributed to erroneous policy conclusions. Having a Cabinet-level director would centralize the responsibility of analyzing data from all the intelligence-gathering agencies and avoid dangerous information gaps.

The 9-11 commission's report revealed many shortcomings in the nation's intelligence system. The United States needs to find new ways to understand foreign cultures and build the image of America around the world. And all indications are that, in spite of the fact we are in the midst of a presidential election campaign, America can't afford to drag its feet on this issue.

How we gather and utilize intelligence information needs to change and that change is unlikely to be implemented on a voluntary basis by existing agency heads. Appointing someone to make sure the necessary coordination occurs and is willing to say the intelligence "buck stops here" may not be a bad idea.

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