Washington, 7 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Last week's decision by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to resign was seen by many as long overdue.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had come under increasing criticism in recent weeks for intelligence failures related to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the war in Iraq.
But many argue that Tenet's resignation may not improve the quality of U.S. intelligence or prevent future failures. They say it is the structure of the U.S. intelligence community that needs changing -- not necessarily the agency's director.
Jane Harman is a U.S. congresswoman (D-California) and the vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. She says the basic problem leading to intelligence failures is that the CIA and other spy agencies are using old techniques that do not apply to the current threat.
"What needs to happen is we need to [take] the covert action done by the CIA out of the CIA so that there is no longer any responsibility in the CIA for anything other than analysis." -- retired CIA official
Speaking on 3 June in Washington, Harman said, "When the Cold War ended, we should have retired that job [of director of central intelligence] and invented a new one better equipped to fight against the threats of the late 20th and 21st century, which are terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, not communism."
She and other members of the opposition Democratic Party are calling for all of the U.S. intelligence agencies -- a total of 15 -- to be regrouped and put under the direction of one person. This super-director of intelligence would be responsible for ensuring the sharing of data among agencies, and would be held accountable for any problems that arose.
Retired CIA official William Christison agrees that the agency needs reforming, but in a different way. Christison is the former director of the agency's Office of Regional and Political Analysis. Christison said Tenet, like other directors of the CIA, tended to get too involved in policy because of the historically close relationship between his office and the president's office. He said this led Tenet to try to please U.S. President George W. Bush and his policy-making aides by providing them with intelligence and analysis that was consistent with their foreign-policy goals.
According to Christison, this is best exemplified by Tenet's reported assurances 18 months ago that Iraq had significant nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs, and that Saddam Hussein needed to be disarmed and deposed.
Christison proposed a simple way to avoid such problems: "What needs to happen is we need to [take] the covert action done by the CIA out of the CIA so that there is no longer any responsibility in the CIA for anything other than analysis."
Christison explained that covert operations are executions of policy, which should be directed by the White House. He said if the CIA and its director have no involvement in covert operations and are limited to analysis, the head of the agency will not be put in the position of trying to cater to the White House the way he believes Tenet did.
Leon Fuerth said he agrees with Harman's premise of shifting operational focus away from the Cold War model. Fuerth was the national security adviser for Vice President Al Gore during the administration of President Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor. But Fuerth questioned Harman's idea of having a single director for all the U.S. spy agencies. He said this would merely be adding another layer to a system that is already too large and complex.
Fuerth said that during the Cold War, the United States faced a threat focused in Moscow, and to a lesser extent in Beijing. Today, he said, the threat is Al-Qaeda and similar groups, who pose a more diffuse threat that requires an intelligence apparatus that is more flexible and is capable of quicker communication.
To add a new layer of management is "old think," Fuerth said, relying on old ideas that cannot respond to a new threat. A better idea, he said, may be to imitate the practice of modern corporations, which rely on quick response to customer needs in order to survive in highly competitive markets.
"[The solution that corporations use] to problems like this is not to create bigger and bigger pyramids, it's actually been to flatten out and to network their systems to make sure that they create an organization where information flows very rapidly to anybody who's got a stake in what the corporation is working on. And I have a feeling that all this other stuff about reorganizing the [intelligence] community is essentially an application of 'old think.'" Fuerth said.
Fuerth said the best way to address the current threat of Al-Qaeda and similar groups is to recruit a new generation of intelligence operatives and analysts with the language skills and regional expertise appropriate to the threat. He said they also must pass security tests.
According to Fuerth, it took a long time for the CIA to assemble the right people to contend with the Soviet Union and communist China during the 1950s and 1960s. He says making the shift to address Islamic groups opposed to the United States will be just as difficult.
In fact, Fuerth said, Tenet already was working on such a reconfiguring of the CIA. He recalled that two months ago, Tenet told the special commission investigating the 11 September attacks that it would take five years to put such a new CIA in place. Fuerth said he agrees. "You have to make a commitment to what you think the country has to prepare for,” Fuerth said. “But a key thing here is that when the commitment involves a basic change of concept and direction, it takes time."
Fuerth said it is time for the White House to show the commitment, and the patience, to make these changes.