National Security & Defense

Agents and Agencies

CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. (Reuters photo: Jason Reed)
Donald Trump should push for intelligence reform.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Donald Trump’s recent public criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies presages an effort to reorganize the nation’s sundry spy bureaucracies. Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, denies that the president has any such plan in mind.

If he doesn’t, he damn well should.

The plan described in the Journal is not unlike the one described in National Review on December 9 by Fred Fleitz of the Center for Security Policy, which would scale back the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), a post-9/11 innovation intended to create a central authority to ensure cooperation and coordination within the herd of cats that is the intelligence community. Fleitz and others have argued that ODNI is just another ladle full of federal alphabet soup — CIA, DIA, NIC, etc. — doing very little more than adding a layer of bureaucracy.

Conservatives have a blind spot for spies, cops, and soldiers. The psychology here is pretty straightforward: A great many conservatives (myself included) who are habitually and instinctively skeptical of grand federal plans were insufficiently beady-eyed when it came to President George W. Bush’s big plans for Iraq, and some of that (again, speaking for myself first and foremost, but not, I think, for myself alone) is purely reactionary. When I see a bunch of dopey white kids with dreadlocks from Haverford College, the Workers World Party, and Chaka Fattah on one side of a barricade, I instinctively want to be on the other side. (This is especially true at the moment for Fattah, the longtime Philadelphia Democrat and Hugo Chávez fanboy who is headed to the penitentiary for corruption.) This is, to be sure, an imperfect heuristic.

There is a question of agents and a separate question of agencies. Many of us, especially conservatives, are inclined to respect and admire those whose profession consists in performing necessary violence: police on the beat in New York City, soldiers patrolling Mosul, and intelligence operatives who, if they are doing their jobs, will never hear the words “Thank you for your service.” But bureaucracies have lives and characters of their own, irrespective of the sort of men they employ. The public schools are made up mostly of good people, but they don’t work very well. One imagines that most IRS agents are scrupulous and dedicated. (The DMV people just hate us.) Out of the field of operations and into the cubicles and corner offices, the NYPD, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency are bureaucracies like any others, and suffer from familiar bureaucratic ailments.

The standard text on this is James Wilson’s Bureaucracy, though it is an interesting sign of our times that recent years have produced not one but two excellent novels on the subject of bureaucracy: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (a novel about the IRS) and my friend Jim Geraghty’s The Weed Agency (a novel about the USDA’s Agency of Invasive Species). If you have ever spent much time around people with intelligence careers, you’ll soon learn the disappointing and unglamorous truth that life in the CIA is a lot less like a James Bond movie and a great deal more like the municipal planning-and-zoning commission in San Bernardino.

These are mainly management problems, which is one reason that the suggestion that Carly Fiorina might be entrusted with overseeing reform efforts is encouraging. We don’t lose wars because our soldiers cannot win them but because our politicians cannot; similarly, we are not losing the intelligence wars because we lack a national talent for spookery.

But we are losing the intelligence wars.

Out of the field of operations, intelligence agencies are bureaucracies like any others.

The failures of the intelligence community leading up to 9/11 are well documented, and there is very little reason to believe that the reforms undertaken since then have radically improved things. Coordination among relevant agencies, which include law-enforcement agencies, remains shockingly poor. Orlando, San Bernardino, Boston, Fort Hood — when was the last time we had a domestic terrorist attack in which the perpetrators were not already on the authorities’ radar or in a position in which they obviously should have been? We apparently allowed the Russians to set up two very large and semi-open espionage operations in Maryland and New York, and the government could not be moved to do anything about them until Vladimir Putin started playing dirty tricks in the U.S. presidential election.

The higher up the chain you go, the worse the failures get.

Federal failures have been noticed at the state and local levels. After 9/11, the NYPD built a very highly regarded intelligence operation, only to see it crippled by politics. This week, Florida governor Rick Scott went to his state legislature asking for a relatively small sum, about $6 million, to begin building a counterterrorism operation at the state level in the wake of the massacre in Orlando. This is a worthwhile development, but there is only so much that can be done at the state and local levels.

#related#What is needed is a seamless-garment approach to intelligence gathering at the federal level, which will necessarily touch everything from financial oversight to immigration to old-fashioned military and espionage operations. The dissemination of that information to and coordination with domestic law-enforcement agencies poses some tricky legal and ethical questions — questions that we will want answered in a consistent and effective way that comports with our existing civil-rights practices.

There is very little reason to have confidence that our current intelligence leadership, tied to our current bureaucratic structures, is up to that task.

The next time you’re taking your shoes off at the airport, think what a few million dollars’ worth of prevention and bureaucratic reform might have accomplished at the end of the 20th century, and how different the world and this country might have looked had things gone differently.

This isn’t a fight about ethanol subsidies or another culture-war campaign about which toilet is used by whom. Some things you have to get right, and this is one of them.

– Kevin Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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