Apr 14, 2007

Spy Chief’s Plan: Deja Vu All Over Again

By Jeff Stein, National Security Editor, CQ Staff
April 13, 2007 – 7:44 p.m.

Chief espionage bureaucrat Mike McConnell said all the right things last week when he released his blueprint for intelligence reform.

But it was deja vu all over again for many close observers of the still-evolving Directorate of National Intelligence, which Congress set up after the surprise terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Enough with plans and press conferences, as one jaded analyst put it. Do something.

But give McConnell and his A-team of skilled deputies credit: They do seem to be bringing a higher level of vigor and enthusiasm to their task than under McConnell’s predecessor John D. Negroponte, who traded in the job to be number two at the State Department, apparently finding Iran, Syria and North Korea more palatable negotiating partners than the turf-conscious chiefs of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies nominally under his control.

Intelligence-sharing still remains more of a dream than a reality for McConnell, as it was for Negroponte when Congress created the post five long years ago.

April 9 was “Day One” of McConnell’s “100 Day Plan” for changing the way U.S. intelligence does business, and at the top of his wish list, as it was six years ago, was to “Create a Culture of Collaboration.”

The retired Navy admiral sounded almost wistful when he talked about his visits to regional “watch centers,” where representatives from a wide array of intelligence agencies work together. Out in Pakistan or wherever, the “intel grunts” get along fine most of the time.

But as McConnell has rediscovered, that hoary truism of intelligence bureaucracies — that the closer you get to Washington, the more intense the agency rivalries — is still operative.

McConnell’s former deputy Michael V. Hayden, dispatched to run the CIA, says in a C-SPAN interview scheduled for broadcast Monday, April 16, “it’s something we work on every day. And people say it’s cultural; people say it’s bureaucratic. Frankly, that’s probably true.”

“Is stovepiping still going on?” C-SPAN boss Brian Lamb asked Hayden, according to a transcript provided by the public affairs network.

“Sure . . . of course it still happens. It’s human nature. . . .That’s the life of the American intelligence community. That’s the challenge we have.”

One realm where U.S. intelligence has demonstrated it can play well with others is abroad.

A global network of foreign counterterrorism allies, some in the darkest corners of the world, has enabled CIA to hunt, jail and interrogate al Qaeda suspects on their territories.

And in a Paris suburb, some of the most effective intelligence sharing of the post-9/11 world was conducted by the U.S. and its Western European allies.

Alas, that too, became a victim of the U.S. spy agencies’ bickering, according to a knowledgeable intelligence source, when the National Counterterrorism Center was set up in 2003 — to improve collaboration.

Somewhat ironically, then, McConnell’s 100-day plan includes a goal to “forge closer intelligence relationships with foreign partners.”

It “provides an environment to enhance collaboration between our national agencies while providing a venue to share more information with our coalition partners.”

If by partners McConnell means whoever’s left in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s an effort that shouldn’t take long at all.
Wall Street
But will we give them security clearances?

As McConnell and other U.S. intelligence officials constantly rue, it still takes about 120 days to get top security clearances for U.S. citizens.

In comparison, he noted, Wall Street firms entrusted with moving billions of dollars an hour, where the temptation to cheat or skim is immense, take about two weeks to complete a background check on recruits.

Under today’s rules, the top German-Jewish refugees and other foreigners recruited to build the A-bomb at Los Alamos would still be sitting on their hands someplace else, unable to get a security clearance.

Most of our top scientists wouldn’t have been able to even start work until mid-1942 — and some not ever.

Even their children born here, under today’s rules, would have been excluded from helping defend their adopted country.

Imagine such bureaucratic molasses in World War II. Would we have been able to win? How long would President Roosevelt have stood for it?

Today, as al Qaeda vows our utter destruction, thousands of scientific, military and intelligence professionals are being kept busy with unclassified spy agency “happy work” waiting for their blue badges to come in.

Today’s need is not for nuclear scientists, but people who can merely speak the languages of the countries where terrorism is growing, from Pakistan to North Africa.

“The worry has always been that if you have relatives in a foreign country, could you be influenced — could you be blackmailed, would your allegiance be to the United States or to that foreign country?” McConnell explained.

Last week, McConnell joined a lengthening line of spy agency “securicrats,” as the South African press calls Pretoria’s intelligence and police bosses, to promise changes.

“We need to move beyond that bias,” he said. “It’s a cultural bias, and (we have to) be very aggressive about recruiting and using Americans who have these native skills in regard to language and culture and so on.” He vowed to take a close look at Wall Street practices.
Power Grab?
McConnell was annoyed at a wire service story last week that previewed some of the changes he has in mind.

“The title is, ‘New spy chief seeks more power.’ Who wrote that?’ ” he jibed to reporters.

Attention was focused on his aims to get more power over hiring and firing in his sub-spy agencies and greater authority from Congress on electronic intercepts.

But what most saw as a power grab — perhaps with sinister overtones — made complete sense to me.

If you’re going to have a true chief of U.S. intelligence, shouldn’t he be able to trump other agency and department heads on their intelligence budgets and who he wants working for him?

If not, Congress should abolish the office instead of pretending that there’s a director of national intelligence. As it stands now, cabinet chiefs — say, at the Treasury Department, which is deeply involved in tracking terrorist finances — can block him from ousting political appointments and getting the right person in the job.

As for the intercepts, variously known as electronic snooping or domestic spying, McConnell couldn’t be on firmer ground in saying, as he did last week, that the technology had moved far beyond original Constitutional protections written when a quill and ink were advanced technologies.

In today’s cyberspace, there are no national boundaries. Ours — and the world’s — e-mails, faxes, money transfers and telephone calls flow through routers here and broad, sweeping away notions of foreign and domestic.

The technology can’t be rolled back.

The policy, that’s another thing entirely. Congress can do anything it wants.

But how will the American people be sure of what’s really going on?

Hayden, who was chief of the eavesdropping National Security Agency when President Bush launched his warrantless surveillance program by fiat, acknowledged the conundrum in his C-SPAN interview.

“What would you do if you thought you were breaking the law?” Brian Lamb asked.

“We can’t break the law. You just can’t go; you just can’t go to that place,” Hayden said.

“How do we know?” Lamb asked.

Jeff Stein can be reached at jstein@cq.com.


Anonymous said...

"As McConnell and other U.S. intelligence officials constantly rue, it still takes about 120 days to get top security clearances for U.S. citizens."

Wow, 4 months. Things must have changed.

Pinky and The Brain said...

We knew someone would notice that immediately.

Anonymous said...

120 days is only if you're position requires Congressional approval, or you're a big wig. For working wonks at our level ...

Anonymous said...

Even two decades ago it could take over a year and a half to get a Q clearance if it wasn't essential for one's job.

"Securicrat" is a nice term. DOE bureaucrats don't know anything or care anything about energy, and securicrats likely don't know or care anything about security. So, the best that can be hoped for is that the folks on the ground understand their tasks, as the article implies, and taht the securicrats in Washington be limited to inconsequential decisions.

Clear people the way Wall Street does it, and let the securicrats wail and keep getting their unearned pay and retirement benefits and make them worry about the possiblity of jail time if they spy on citizens without a warrant.