How President Trump Can Make American Intelligence Great Again (NRO, 12/9/16)

By Fred Fleitz

In 2010, when I was on the staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I attended a committee hearing on the North Korean nuclear program. That hearing epitomized the failure of post-9/11 reforms of U.S. intelligence and showed why the Trump administration must take aggressive steps to streamline American intelligence. Only then can it can return to being the great institution that provides the intelligence support our presidents need to protect our nation against national-security threats facing our nation today.

This process should start by sharply scaling back or eliminating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The lead witness at this hearing, seated at the center of a long witness table, was the ODNI North Korea issue manager. Seated next to him on each side were the ODNI issue manager for WMD proliferation and the director of the ODNI National Counterproliferation Center.

Joining them were the National Intelligence Council (NIC) officers for WMD proliferation and East Asia, both part of the ODNI. The CIA sent two witnesses, from its proliferation and North Korea–analysis offices. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the State Department, and the Department of Energy sent one witness each.

In addition to these 10 witnesses, other senior intelligence officials attended as backbenchers. There also was a gaggle of aides, handlers, and congressional liaison staffers. There were so many that they could not all fit into the hearing room.

The hearing seemed to go on forever, since the lead witness kept inviting all his colleagues to weigh in on every question asked by committee members. Some of the backbenchers spoke too. This became monotonous, since every witness (except for the one from DIA) parroted the same watered-down consensus view. Making this worse, the witnesses’ consensus statements were proven to be completely wrong a few months later.

This mob of intelligence officials spouting the same watered-down pablum exemplified why the reform of U.S. intelligence mandated by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) has been an utter failure. Although IRTPA created the position of the director of national intelligence as a new official to oversee all U.S. intelligence agencies, to ensure that these agencies would cooperate and share information, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has developed into a huge additional layer of bureaucracy, with far too many officials, that has made American intelligence analysis and collection less efficient and more risk-averse.

This is in part due to blowback from 9/11 and Iraq War intelligence failures, but also is a typical situation for a 70-year-old, multi-billion-dollar bureaucracy that has become complex and complacent. As is true with many established government bureaucracies, political factors and fear of being wrong weigh heavily on the operations of U.S. intelligence agencies. While America still has the world’s best and most capable intelligence service, it has lost the “can-do” intrepid spirit of its predecessor, the heroic World War II-era Office of Strategic Services.

The ODNI has made this problem much worse — not just because it is an additional layer of stifling bureaucracy, but also because it has become a 17th intelligence agency, with its own intelligence analysts, thousands of employees, and a huge — and ever growing — budget.

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