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On Point

To Fix Intelligence, Hire Artists and Fire Bureaucrats


by Austin Bay
December 7, 2005

Newt Gingrich's thoughtful and often-provocative testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence deserves careful consideration. The former speaker of the House, testifying on Oct. 19, focused on American intelligence performance and organizational flaws. These are abundant, abysmal and, as we know from both Pearl Harbor and 9-11, potentially fatal.

Gingrich says, bluntly, "The nation's intelligence system is broken, and we cannot rest until we fix it." He suggests measures that reward intelligence success and penalize failure. Given Washington's bureaucratic and political impediments -- turf wars, ego-crats, electioneering, etc. -- merely reorganizing intelligence agencies and creating a new intel czar doesn't solve fundamental problems.

The latest czar is the new director of national intelligence (DNI), Ambassador John Negroponte. Gingrich thinks the DNI is a good start, but "at its core, intelligence reform has to be centered on performance, and only then can we deal with organizational structures."

Gingrich is reinforcing former CIA Director James Schlesinger's October 2003 observation that "major organizational change (in the intel community) is not the salvation. I would submit the real challenge lies in recruiting, fostering, training and motivating people with insight."

Gingrich identifies five "themes" for intelligence reform:

  • America's current "global responsibilities" are more complex than during the Cold War.
  • America's current national security challenges are more difficult than those confronted during the Cold War.
  • Intelligence is "grotesquely under-sourced" based on what "leaders claim they want" it to achieve.
  • Intelligence needs a measurable system of accountability.
  • Congress must also evolve institutionally to deal with new strategic and intelligence complexities.

Theme 5 fingers one of the chief but slipperiest of culprits: Washington leadership. Gingrich mentions the usual nostrums of effective oversight and better leadership, and congressional finagling that has hindered intelligence operations: "Many of today's intelligence problems are a direct function of past congressional assaults on the process of intelligence, starvation of the community, micromanagement of operations and establishing of legalistic standards which cannot be employed in a genuine clandestine service."

This isn't news -- it is a hard, uncomfortable truth.

Gingrich then makes what I believe is his most important recommendation, though it's one I suspect will attract little attention: Political leaders must become "more sophisticated consumers of intelligence." How do we do this? Gingrich says leaders must "participate in war-gaming, metrics assessment and academic training to an unprecedented extent."

Intelligence-gathering is tough enough, but producing useful, useable intelligence is an art. It seems very few leaders understand that. Intelligence is a grand exercise in data interpretation, pattern recognition and intuition, requiring expertise in linguistics, geography, mathematics, history, theology, psychology, physics, metaphysics, and every other human means of analysis and explanation. Moreover, the intelligence "jigsaw puzzle" is a dynamic, shifting, changing puzzle. It takes vision to "put the puzzle together," which is what former Schlesinger meant when he said the American intelligence community needs people with "insight."

Unfortunately, government bureaucracies are tough on artists and visionaries. Political infighters and insiders tend to dominate the process. Gingrich bets that war-gaming and education will give political leaders a way to identify the artists and visionaries.

In January 2001 -- nine months before 9-11 -- I wrote a column discussing America's intelligence vulnerabilities. Here's a quote from that column:

"Intelligence isn't simply data, it's a dynamic process that includes: (1) creating and maintaining collection capabilities (with assets from human spies to spy satellites); (2) retrieving the info in a way that's timely and secure; (3) assessing source reliability; (4) assimilating often contradictory information into a meaningful "pattern," which means interpretation that is more art than science; and (5) convincing decision-makers (whose minds may be less than open) to act on the assessments. With the interplay of people, machines, opinion and politics, it doesn't take a whole of lot of snap to see how the system can stutter, stall and occasionally break."

On 9-11, it broke. It's high time we hired the artists and fired the bureaucrats.

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