American Intelligence; Too Big to Succeed?

June 5, 2010

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” – Abraham Lincoln

The top Intelligence job in the national security arena has claimed another victim. Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence (DNI), titular head of the Intelligence Community (IC), has announced plans to retire. Pundits suggest his departure was not voluntary. Blair is seen as the fall guy for a string of recent Intelligence “failures,” the most recent of which was an attempted bombing of Times Square on 1 May. Ironically, Blair has no line or budget authority over any of the 16 disparate intelligence agencies; and, as a former military officer, he doesn’t have any political cover either. More culpable line officials like Leon Panetta (CIA) and Janet Napolitano (DHS) are both well-connected Democrats and thus less likely to be called to account.

A number of potential successors for Blair have surfaced, the most prominent of which is James Clapper. A former Air Force officer, Clapper is the current Undersecretary for Intelligence at DOD. Like Robert Gates, General Capper is a holdover from the Bush years and as such may not be a slam dunk for the job.

If credentials and experience mean anything, Clapper is well prepared. He began his military career as a Marine Corps grunt, transferred to ROTC at the University of Maryland and received a commission in the Air Force. He began his career as a signals (SIGINT) officer and he has favored the technical side of Intelligence ever since. He served as a combat aviator in Vietnam and rose to command a wing at the National Security Agency (NSA). He went on to become the chief of Air Force Intelligence and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

Clapper’s distinctive contribution to the Intelligence business is the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. This little known technological wonder is the digital brains behind the American capability to locate, analyze, and target the enemy in real time. Indeed, this geo-strategic identification and strike capability is the new “gold standard” – a unique American intelligence capability.

Officers like Clapper are known as “mustangs,” soldiers with pedestrian blood lines who rise through the ranks. He was a former enlisted man, he did not go to an elite university, and he did not graduate from one of the prestigious military academies. In short, he is not a “ring knocker,” not one of those military academy graduates with a sense of entitled promotions. Jim Clapper is a classic American success story; and unlike most of his contemporaries, a genuine Horatio Alger.

So why in the name of rationality would he want the worst job in Washington? The DNI has no real line authority and no budgetary means to control events in subordinate Intelligence agencies.

General Clapper’s motives will be examined in detail if he appears before Congress for confirmation. Beforehand, the long knives on the Hill and in the Press are already evident. Several politicians have already suggested that they would prefer the likes of Leon Panetta – or some other well-wired party loyalist. Those who argue for politicized managers seldom mention the fiasco cooked up by the ever sentient former CIA Director, George Tenent, for the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq; an “analysis” that was later used as the basis for Colin Powell’s disastrous and disingenuous presentation at the UN in 2003.

A faux controversy over DIA (1992-1995) is already evident.  In the early 90’s Clapper tried to reorient the analytical focus from area studies to more technical intelligence concerns, e.g., weapons systems. Consistent with his background, Clapper presumed to think that Intelligence ought to focus on the things it does well. If he believes that geo-strategic navel gazing and wishful thinking are better done elsewhere; he is probably right and politically incorrect at the same time. Recent NIE’s on Iraq and Iran provide more than ample evidence to support any skepticism about geo-political analysis that Clapper might have had. He may not have made poor decisions at DIA, but he did make enemies.

The analytical controversy is sure to accompany Clapper to his confirmation hearings if and when he is nominated. Critics hail from an agency that was formed from the detritus of the military intelligence agencies; four stovepipes that DIA was supposed to supersede. Yet, the Service intelligence agencies and DIA survive today – not without rancor. From the beginning, DIA was known within DOD as a “mushroom” factory, a moniker consistent with the original work space in the basement of the Pentagon. When most employees moved to Bolling AFB, cynics rechristened DIA as the “death star,” an  allusion to the fate of some careers and the black glass monolith which serves as the new workspace. Fools may be suffered gladly at DIA, then as now, but change was seldom among them.

If and when Clapper takes the hot seat on Capital Hill a host of challenges other than petty critics await: centralization of Intelligence authority, analytical competence, redundancy, duplication, community size, politicization, and the growing sense that the Intelligence Community just doesn’t work – a leviathan too big to succeed.

Jim Clapper is known to be an advocate of centralized line authority and an enemy of bureaucratic duplication. He favors focused analysis and the challenge of making heretofore disparate factions come together synergistically. Although he is known as a chap who plays well with others, Clapper’s ability to swim with political sharks like Panetta, Napolitano, and John Brennan (White House homeland security advisor) is still a cipher. Beyond loyalty, none of the latter three have shown any flair for national security performance other than party lines and political correctness.

In many ways the Intelligence Community is the product of Lincoln Log engineering, each crisis or failure seems to generate more spending, more bureaucracy. With no political axes to grind, Jim Clapper could deftly wield a stiletto and reshape a leaner and meaner national security community, where competence, not size or spending, becomes the dominant idiom.

The appointment of a new DNI is also a test for the administration, a test to see if the White House is serious about improved performance. The White House may offer line and budget authority as an incentive for the next candidate, knowing that only Congress can deliver on such a promise. Many on the Hill harbor reservations about Intelligence “czars” and more than a few opposed the idea of DNI to begin with.

If General Clapper is nominated, he will do so as a mustang, a scrapper who made the most of modest beginnings. He knows the business and he is not afraid to rock the boat. He has the street credentials, integrity, and independence to remold institutions sorely in need of diet and sharper focus. If he takes the job with no assurances of getting line and budget authority, he will, unfortunately, go down in history as just another gelding coursing through the Intelligence Community, an inscrutable “wilderness of mirrors.”

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The author is the former Director of Research and Russian Studies (aka Soviet Awareness), Bolling AFB; he served under General Clapper when Clapper was the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, HQ USAF. The author also served two tours with DIA.

(This essay was originally published in the 02 June 10 edition of American Thinker.)


Whistling in the Dark

May 22, 2010

“Courage is the resistance to fear, the mastery of fear – not the absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

Dennis Blair’s commentary for the opinion pages of the Washington Post on 18 December is a world class contribution to the literature of denial. His assessment of American national security since 9/11 is notable only for what it ignores. The Director of National Intelligence uses the fifth anniversary of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Act of 2004 to celebrate a 16 agency US Intelligence Community that is not lean, mean, agile, or effective.

Let’s deal with denial first. Mr. Blair wastes an opportunity by writing about Intelligence reform without once mentioning “Islamic” terrorists or two costly wars in progress in two “Muslim” theaters. Reading his assessment, you could be led to believe he can not or will not identify the threat or the enemy. It is as if the words Islam and Muslim had been stricken from the strategic vocabulary. In this he is not alone.

The President, speaking in Cairo and Istanbul, exhibited the same reticence. Reading the Cairo transcript one might conclude that the sources of genocidal Islamic rage are things like French dress codes. In a similar vein, the Secretary of State, more recently, in Berlin described bin Laden and al Qaeda as the “core” of the administration’s national security concerns. Mrs. Clinton’s false narrative seeks to narrow the threat to one man and one terror group. Clinton also repeats a chestnut often offered by her husband, former President Bill Clinton:

“And we do bear some of the responsibility, frankly, for helping to create (sic) the very terrorists that we’re now all threatened by.”

Mr. an Mrs. Clinton are fond of arguing that the United States, and Israel by implication, are at the heart of Islamist angst. Ironically, this is the same rationale that has been provided by ayatollahs, imans, and mullahs for the past half century.

A clear picture of the Obama national security doctrine is emerging as we sift the specifics from the President, from Secretary of State Clinton, and now from the Director of National Intelligence. For the moment, this doctrine appears to have three components; denial, threat minimization, and guilt. We should first believe that Muslims and Islamists do not share what they so obviously have in common; we should also accept bin Laden and al Qaeda as the only “core” issues; and, adding insult to injury, we must recognize that we Americans (and Jews) are two of the sources of Islamic jihad, terrorism, and the quest for kalifa.  Corollaries to this doctrine are provided by the policies for Iraq and Afghanistan; both of which could charitably be described as exit strategies with expiration dates.

This policy of denial, if not appeasement, should be a winner in Europe and at the United Nations, but it leaves a lot to be desired if the safety of America (or Israel) is a concern. Indeed, if the Sunni threat can be reduced to a bearded man and forty thieves in a cave somewhere in Pashtunistan, then surely the nuclear menace from Shiites and Iran is a kind of strategic chopped liver.

Mr. Blair’s holiday manifesto, after ignoring the Islamist menace, provides a definition of Intelligence strategy with a bizarre wish list of primary concerns:

“The new (US) National Intelligence Strategy provides the blueprint …  for effectiveness…  and a focus on cyber security, counterintelligence and … problems such as pandemic disease, climate events, failed states … scarce natural resources…(and) such issues as energy, trade, drug interdiction and public health… Continued commitment and investment in this reform are vital.”

Does cyber security include those unsecured downlinks from reconnaissance drones in Iraq and Afghanistan which are being hacked? Does counterintelligence effectiveness include that Muslim Army major who shot up Fort Hood? And what do disease, climate, natural resources, and public health have to do with an enemy that might make all those other concerns irrelevant. What Mr. Blair’s intelligence “strategy” seems to lack most is focus.

The Director of National Intelligence goes on to tell us:

“It has been famously argued that information is power and, therefore, should never be shared. The Sept. 11 attacks showed the fatal flaws in that logic. Our nation is becoming safer every day…..”

Who is it that says information shouldn’t be shared? And speaking of 9/11, how are we doing with bin Laden and Mullah Omar after a decade of looking? And who among us feels safer every day?

Those “stovepipes” which Mr. Blair celebrates are part of the problem also, not the solution. He fails to mention that the major element of the “reform” he celebrates was the addition of two new stovepipes; the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center. The 16 separate Intelligence agencies are still defended in the name of analytical diversity; yet when the diverse fail to converse, we are led to believe that “sharing” solves the problem.

Mr. Blair’s celebration of sharing didn’t anticipate the catastrophic failure to communicate a week later; precisely the flaw that allowed the “underwear” bomber, Mr. Abdulmutallab, to board a Detroit bound Northwest Airbus with nearly 300 souls on board on 25 December. Tragedy was averted by a few courageous passengers and crew, not an alert Intelligence Community.

Other than “sharing”, the key word in Mr. Blair’s 18 Dec argument may be “investment,” a shop worn euphemism for bigger is better. In this arena, Blair seems to be oblivious to the “tumescent threat” a bloom that sinks many an enterprise. Institutions may be the product of good ideas, but when size becomes unmanageable, the institution often becomes the enemy of the idea. If Mr. Blair’s analysis provides any clues, the bloated US Intelligence Community may have reached a tipping point.

In his analysis, Mr. Blair also fails to mention Israel, America’s lone democratic ally in theater. This omission is becoming part of a pattern. President Obama has visited two major Muslim capitals since coming to office. He has yet to go to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. One of the lessons that Mr. Obama might take away from a visit to Israel would be an appreciation of virtues of compact, focused Intelligence efforts.

Israel is often characterized as the “canary in the coal mine.” If we read the signals coming from the Oval Office, we might think about changing the metaphor from canary to sacrificial lamb.

And if Dennis Blair’s analysis of the national security threat and associated Intelligence requirements on 18 December represents the best thinking of the American 16 agency consortium, he and his colleagues, like the White House, are whistling in the dark.

(This article appeared in the 18 Dec 09 edition of American Thinker)

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G. Murphy Donovan is a former USAF Intelligence officer and author of “Escaping the Wilderness of Mirrors,” an argument to privatize national estimates, which appears in the December edition of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.