Intelligence Deficient

When President Bush proposed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last year, one of four key tasks he said the new department would fulfill would be streamlined counterterrorism intelligence analysis. The new department "will review intelligence and law-enforcement information from all agencies of government and produce a single daily picture of threats against our homeland," Bush declared in a speech on June 6, 2002. The idea made sense: One of the main findings of a post-September 11 congressional inquiry was that a failure to share and jointly analyze foreign and domestic terrorism information was disrupting our ability to detect and prevent attacks. Bush's DHS proposal promised to change that.

But since Bush made his pledge last summer -- and since the department's creation in January -- his administration has set about preemptively gutting the intelligence-analysis function of the DHS and handing it to a new center to be housed at the CIA. Which means, many believe, that the interdepartmental turf wars that have long plagued U.S. intelligence analysis -- and that an office housed at the DHS might have ended -- are bound to continue. Far from dramatically improving our ability to analyze terrorist threats, Bush's actions have put authority for counterterrorism analysis back into the hands of the very same agencies -- the CIA and the FBI -- that failed to connect the dots before September 11.

Bush's State of the Union address signaled the beginning of the end for the idea of handing over intelligence synthesis to the DHS. In his speech, Bush said he was "instructing the leaders of the FBI, the CIA, the Homeland Security and the Department of Defense to develop a Terrorist Threat Integration Center, to merge and analyze all threat information in a single location." In the days following the announcement, a White House fact sheet explained that the new center would be "headed by a senior U.S. Government official, who will report to the Director of Central Intelligence" -- not the secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge.

Now the idea appears officially dead. Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Gordon England told the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs last week that his department doesn't want to run the kind of ambitious, all-source intelligence fusion center almost all agree is needed. "It would be very, very difficult for the Department of Homeland Security to take on the task of a threat analysis center," England told the senators. "I don't think we could manage that operation."

What does the decision to house the Terrorist Threat Integration Center at the CIA -- rather than the DHS -- mean in practical terms? More status quo for the intelligence bureaucracy, intelligence watchers predict. "The forces arrayed against DHS are very powerful," says James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ashcroft doesn't want to give up turf, Rumsfeld doesn't want to give up turf, and the intelligence guys don't want to give up turf. So who is it that's on [the Homeland Security Department's] side? The new agency didn't feel like taking this fight on. Compared with setting up the CIA and [the Defense Department] -- when you had a White House willing to knock heads together -- it doesn't look like this administration was willing to do it."

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, agrees. "It shows a disregard to what has, up to now, been a relatively sacrosanct distinction that the CIA does not operate against domestic targets -- nor does it have a law-enforcement function," he said. "Without being conspiratorial, one can state objectively that the CIA is the least accountable agency in the U.S. government. It's a tradition of deference that has been granted to the agency -- some questions are just not asked of it in public. Other questions are not asked at all.

"What's strange about all this is this whole proposal seems to have emerged from the top down," Aftergood added. "The first we heard of it was in the president's State of the Union address. It's a very strange way to reorganize the intelligence bureaucracy. It explains why the Senate Governmental Affairs [Committee] is complaining: No one bothered to consult them. It shows a certain contempt for Congress."

Contempt, indeed. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has been battling the White House on the issue for months -- first insisting on the need for a homeland-security department (a proposal the White House resisted for six months before co-opting), then demanding a new all-source intelligence analysis center, then arguing that such a center should naturally be housed in the new DHS.

"Once again, it has taken the administration longer than it should have to recognize a pressing homeland-security need -- in this case a central place to analyze terrrorist threats," Lieberman told me in a prepared statement last week. "Unfortunately, the administration's reluctance to shake up the turf-conscious intelligence community is reflected in the way it is now setting up its Terrorist Threat Integration Center. By placing it under the authority of the Director of Central Intelligence, rather than the Secretary of Homeland Security, the administration has chosen to limit the authority, resources and scope of the intelligence unit in the Homeland Security Department."

For his part, Lewis says that the DHS has been the clear loser in the turf war over who will own counterterrorism intelligence. He predicts that the CIA and FBI "will cobble something together as they go along that lets them combine their authorities to do some kind of domestic intelligence work. But it's not going to be the kind of broad-scale thing people were thinking about." As for the DHS, Lewis says we should have no illusions. "We're creating a new department that will be like a dinosaur," he says, "with a really big body and a really small brain." Which is to say a lot of bureaucracy -- and very little intelligence.

Laura Rozen writes on national-security issues from Washington, D.C.