By deciding to name a director of National Intelligence to oversee our country’s troubled intelligence service, President Bush has done more than merely accept the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendation. He has accepted the commission’s key conclusion: Namely, that the 9/11 intelligence failure might have been avoided, and the attacks themselves averted, if only a “czar” had been in charge of the CIA and the other 14 agencies that comprise our intelligence service.
In fact the 9/11 intelligence failure–and the CIA’s cascading series of intelligence failures involving Iraq in the years since 9/11–all stem from a different root entirely: personnel, by which I mean the poor choice of people who in the last decade or so have been catapulted into the leadership of our intelligence service. After all, in one sense intelligence is no different than any other business: People matter more than org charts. Put the right people in charge of an organization, and they overcome its structural problems or figure out on their own what changes to make. Put the wrong people in charge, and not even a perfect structure will avert disaster.
The key to understanding why personnel lies at the heart of all the intelligence failures we’ve had, including 9/11, is to recognize that while most leadership positions are interchangeable, some are not. More precisely, there are some leadership positions that by their nature are more cerebral than managerial. The difference isn’t, so to speak, in the number of neurons the leaders have firing inside their heads, but in the content of these neurons. For example, the editor of a newspaper must be at heart a journalist. He must have a “nose for news” in the sense of having good judgment about which stories to run, and which to hold; about which story to put at the top of page one, and which to bury on page 23; about whether to point his crack team of investigative reporters at the mayor, or the police chief. Likewise, the director of a scientific research institute must himself be a world-class scientist. Only a world-class scientist can manage other scientists, for instance by knowing which ones to hire, which of their research projects to back and which to stop, which of their requests for new equipment to approve and which to reject. Only a world-class scientist will have that priceless, unquantifiable gut feel for where the big payoff lies.
The Need to Schmooze
Visit any newsroom, or any research lab, and you will see the editor or the director in the thick of things. The editor is in the newsroom, or in his office nearby, usually with the door open. He and his reporters are in constant contact–not just formal meetings, but all those informal, unscheduled conversations at someone’s desk, or at the coffee machine. The lab director works in the same way, and you are less likely to find him in his office than perched on a stool at a subordinate’s work bench, holding a test tube while the subordinate pours in some frothing mixture. Both the editor and the lab director tend to hang around late, and to drop by on a Saturday afternoon just to schmooze with whoever happens to be around because–well, because that is who they are and what they want to do.
Do these leaders also administer and “coordinate” their organizations? Of course they do. But it’s their judgment–their intellectual grasp of the content of their work–that matters far more than their administrative skills. Find the greatest “manager” this country can produce–someone like Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric Company–and parachute him in to head a newspaper or a research lab. No doubt he will run a tighter ship, find ways to cut costs, straighten out some tangled lines of authority–and the result will be an utter catastrophe.
“Intelligence” is one of these specialties, which means that the individual in charge of our intelligence service, regardless of what jobs he has previously held, must have the heart and soul of an intelligence officer. Here’s why: Our intelligence service does two things: It gathers information relevant to our country’s security, and it tries to understand what the information means. In other words, it collects dots and then connects them into patterns. Of the 15 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence service, the most important by far is the CIA. That’s because the “C” in CIA stands for “central,” which means that it’s the CIA’s job to take the dots that all the 15 agencies collect and connect them into patterns that will alert the President to looming dangers. For the CIA to work properly, the agency must have at its top echelon the kind of men and women who have the knowledge, experience and talent to connect those dots into patterns–and to do this soon enough, and clearly enough, so that the president has ample time to respond to looming dangers.
This is done through the National Intelligence Estimates, which are the top-secret, top-level projections for the president in which all those “dots” the agencies and analysts have collected are pulled together into a pattern. Despite the intense focus on the NIE process by the 9/11 Commission, and by the Senate Intelligence Committee in its recent report–and in particular their focus on the famously flawed NIE about Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program–both panels missed the key point: When a NIE is drafted, and when all the differing judgments of the analysts and the agencies are outlined, someone has to make the final decision about what the U.S. Intelligence Community really believes is correct. In other words, someone has to call the shot and tell the president that his $40-billion-a-year intelligence service believes that Iraq has WMDs, or not, or that North Korea has nuclear bombs, or not, or that China is planning to attack Taiwan, or not. Under the present structure, that individual is the director of Central Intelligence. And this is why the director must always be a world-class pattern-spotter. It’s his judgment about what is true, or untrue–and about which dissents to include in an NIE and which to leave out–that the president and Congress depend upon. Whether or not the director is a skilled administrator isn’t nearly so important.
Their Insights, Not Their Secrets
This is why presidents have traditionally chosen their CIA directors from among the best pattern spotters our country can produce. They wanted men who knew their way around the world, had a deep grasp of history and global politics, and above all had proven track records of success at seeing new trends–and understanding what they meant–long before these trends were even visible to everyone else. Among the CIA directors who fit this mold were Allen Dulles, John McCone, William Casey, and James Woolsey. These were men whose accomplishments had put them in the history books before taking charge at the CIA. They were men whose advice, and whose insights about the world, were sought out by politicians and world leaders even when they weren’t in office and didn’t have access to secrets. (I used to tell people that Bill Casey wasn’t the most well informed man in Washington because he was CIA director; rather, President Reagan had chosen Bill to head the CIA because he was the most well-informed man in Washington.) And being the kind of men they were, when they took charge of our intelligence service they sought out others who were like themselves. They brought these world-class analysts into the agency and used their talents, and their energy, to get the job done and thus assure that the president would see the future soon enough, and clearly enough, to change the future before it happened.
But in the last decade or so, pattern spotters have been replaced by bureaucrats. George Tenet, who resigned last month as director of Central Intelligence, was a congressional aide when President Clinton–to the utter astonishment of everyone who knew anything about intelligence–named him deputy director of Central Intelligence. It was even more astonishing when, after James Woolsey’s resignation, Clinton promoted Tenet to the director’s chair. To replace Tenet as deputy director Clinton promoted long-time CIA analyst John McLaughlin. President Bush kept Tenet in place not only after the 2000 election, but after the 9/11 attacks. And when Tenet resigned last month, he named McLaughlin acting DCI. Both these men are decent, hard-working, deeply patriotic Americans. I mean no disrespect by pointing out that the gap between their backgrounds and credentials, and those of their various predecessors, is enormous. Make a list of the 100 or so most brilliant pattern-spotters in our country–look to the worlds of politics, business, Wall Street, academia, and the think tanks for such men and women, with proven track records and the reputations to match–and neither of these two gentlemen’s names will be on it. One telling indicator of the difference between these men and their predecessors is their failure during recent years to seek out and recruit the kind of outside analytic talent that the CIA in earlier years had routinely brought in to enhance, invigorate–and challenge–the career CIA analysts and thus help sharpen the agency’s work, for example by breaking through the groupthink that afflicts all organizations comprised solely of career insiders.
If the 9/11 intelligence failure were unique, it wouldn’t be fair to come down so hard on the people who were in charge at the time. Even first-class intelligence leaders make mistakes–even big ones, sometimes with terrible consequences. But the 9/11 failure has been followed by a cascading series of intelligence failures involving Iraq. Whatever may turn out to be the truth about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction–whether they never existed, were destroyed or shipped to Syria or Iran before the war–the CIA failed to provide an accurate assessment of what U.S. forces would find in Iraq when they got there. In addition, the CIA failed to project Saddam Hussein’s war strategy–to melt into the population and then launch guerilla attacks rather than fight our Army head-on in the field–failed to project the sorry state of Iraq’s physical infrastructure including its oil pipelines and electric grids, and failed to accurately project the edgy attitude of Iraq’s political factions. And in late July the Washington Times reported that the CIA was caught by surprise when it learned that China has developed and launched a new class of submarines, whose only possible use would be to attack U.S. ships defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.
It simply isn’t possible that all these failures were due to a lack of coordination, rather than a lack of judgment. There is no organization in the world whose structure is so screwed up that good analysts cannot figure out a way around it. Indeed, part of being a good analyst is knowing whom to touch base with, and how. (And when the bureaucracy throws up a wall you cannot scale–you just telephone over it and arrange for lunch or a quiet barbecue on Sunday.) Ask the editor of any great newspaper, or the head of any world-class research lab: you cannot stop serious and gifted reporters or scientists from talking with one another, meeting with one another, coordinating with one another. The hard part is getting them to shut up long enough to do their work.
Who Makes the Call?
In its recommendation that we create a director of National Intelligence to “co-ordinate” our intelligence service, the 9/11 Commission ignored the key issue of judgment. In other words, while all this highly touted coordinating is going on, who will be doing the thinking? If we put a DNI on top of the DCI, which one will have the ultimate responsibility for making the call–for deciding what the intelligence service believes about Iraq, about the status of nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, and about all the other issues on which our country’s security depends?
The 9/11 Commission seems to envisage the new DNI as a sort of bureaucratic Phileas Fogg–suspended in a hot-air balloon over the 15 intelligence agencies, peering down at them through his telescope to see what’s going on. But is the DNI really going to say to the president: “Here’s that new Estimate on Denmark’s Covert Nuclear Weapons Program that the DCI and his people have worked up. I’m just the coordinator, so I don’t have any opinion about it.” Fat chance. From the moment a DNI is named, this official will be calling the shots. And this means that he will need to be in the thick of things–mixing it up 14 hours a day with the analysts and the spies, always available for a quick word or some advice, always hanging around to schmooze and point the way forward. If he does this by putting his office out at CIA headquarters in Langley–which is where the action is–then he’s just the DCI with some expanded authority. If he tries to do this from an office at the White House, or next door at the Old Executive Office Building, he will need to establish his own staff there–in which case all he’s accomplished is to replicate the CIA itself at a new location.
Since the president holds an M.B.A. from Harvard, surely he knows that you can never solve a personnel problem with an organizational change. Perhaps his decision to ask Congress to create the new post of DNI is designed more to solve a political problem; to show voters he’s on the case and moving fast to fix our broken intelligence service. And perhaps, if Congress creates the new post, the President will choose as his DNI a world-class pattern spotter who will be able to get hold of things regardless of where the new office is located or how the new org chart is drawn. Let’s hope so, because if the personnel issue isn’t dealt with our intelligence service will remain adrift, which in turn will leave the country vulnerable to another 9/11 attack.
And then what? Probably another commission that will recommend creation of a director of Intergalactic Intelligence, to sit on top of the director of National Intelligence, who sits on top of the director of Central Intelligence.
–Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan administration as special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence, and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. His new video is The Siege of Western Civilization.