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Dumbed-Down Intelligence

This column was written by Michael Tanji.

Recently a six-man jihadi cell in New Jersey was arrested while allegedly planning an armed attack on a military base. In California a jury is now deliberating the fate of a naturalized Chinese-American, who the government alleges worked as a spy for China. Per various media reports, Russian intelligence activity against the United States and its European allies is back to Cold War levels. You would think that if ever there was a time to focus our intelligence community on clear and present dangers, it would be now.

Think again.

Congress is now debating the merits of turning the intelligence community loose against global warming. There is precedence for this: In 1997 then-director of Central Intelligence Deutch established an "Environmental Center" in the CIA's analysis directorate. Since climate change is now an official threat (according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), what better time to take resources away from the fight against al Qaeda?

Speaking of former CIA directors, there have been numerous comments made about George Tenet's inability to get people, places, and dates right in his new memoir. Kind of makes you wonder just how concerned he was about facts, accuracy, and standards during his tenure as head of the U.S. intelligence community. I personally know of no former colleague who would operate in such a slipshod manner. But in a bureaucracy, such disregard for core principles from the leadership eventually becomes part of the institutional culture.

While we are on the topic of the CIA, did you know that the majority of the workforce there has been on the job for only five years? Twenty percent have been on the job for just about one year. Some of these people are filling new positions but by and large they are filling billets emptied by professionals who received their security clearances when the new kids on the block were learning how to walk.

A recent survey of National Security Agency employees noted that the vast majority of them do not trust their bosses as far as they can throw them. How bad can their leadership be? Despite the key role that NSA's capabilities plays in the war on terror, they still cannot write a check for equipment without first getting approval from Pentagon overseers. This was an authority that was taken from them years ago, and their continued inability to effectively field new systems that actually work suggests that they should not receive that authority back any time soon. The inability of NSA management to perform basic planning functions now has them flirting with the prospect of not having enough electrical power to run operations or storage for all the data they are vacuuming.

We should start to remedy this dismal intelligence situation by accepting the fact that while we live in dangerous times, not every problem is a national security problem. There may be security implications to many issues, but primacy for all the world's ills does not fall on the shoulders of Defense Secretary Gates or DNI McConnell. Figuring out how to address pending humanitarian crises does not require people skilled in military science.

Building up the capabilities of our intelligence and security apparatus also requires that we rebuild trust in the system. Seasoned veterans and new hires both need to be confident that their leadership will not undermine them by bending to political whims or burden them with administrivia. People who cannot be trusted need to be fired (or aggressively encouraged to enjoy their pensions). Nothing buoys morale more than the elimination of dead weight.

To a certain extent you can hire your way out of the manpower problem, but only if you do it smartly. You need the mid-careerists to return as employees — not contractors. Fix the leadership problems and the people who fled will start to think about reuniting with their Uncle Sam. If we get smart about pay, personnel, and quality-of-life issues — pay-banding, flexibility in assignments, and dispersing operations outside the D.C. area — then the prodigal sons and daughters will form a line to get back in.

Functionally speaking, the intelligence community needs to reduce its dependence on the hierarchical, industrial-age model. We see signs of progress in efforts such as Intellipedia and classified blogs, but such efforts are still the exception to the rule. With subject-matter expertise across the board at an ebb, we need to leverage knowledge and experience regardless of what agency it happens to reside in. Recently announced inter-agency exchange programs might help, but none of the similar programs in the past ever worked to any serious extent.

One can derive a certain amount of entertainment criticizing congressional Democrats for wanting to lump polluters in with terrorists (though maybe then they would start to warm up to the idea of coercive interrogation techniques), but if we do not rescue our intelligence community from its current death spiral, its degradation will be so complete that it will become incapable of effectively executing any mission we give it, environmental or otherwise.

Unless we are prepared to delineate national security threats from issues-of-national-concern, and make the serious, systemic changes that are necessary to bring about real reform and extract top-notch performance, we should declare a moratorium now on expressing surprise at any future intelligence failures.

By Michael Tanji

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