Seeking a Higher Intelligence

When news broke about the infamous FBI "Phoenix" memo, which warned headquarters of possible terrorist activity in U.S. aviation schools last July, members of Congress could be heard fulminating across the land. "How in the world could somebody have read this document and not had lights, firecrackers, rockets go off in their head that this is something that is really important?" asked Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who heads the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.

But there was less attention paid to another important question: Why has Congress failed to demand long-recommended improvements in the coordination of counterterrorism efforts between the CIA, the FBI, and other agencies? Even in the months after September 11, when the need was clear, the Senate and House intelligence committees failed to address the intelligence community's lack of preparedness for major terrorist attacks. What's more, in May a Senate committee went ahead and approved President Bush's request for an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion increase in the intelligence budget for fiscal 2003, bringing the total intelligence budget to an estimated $35 billion.

To veteran observers of the intelligence world, the approval of this budget is just one more sign that congressional intelligence oversight committees aren't serious about demanding change. "There's a ritual quality to intelligence oversight," says Tom Donnelly, a former staffer on the House Armed Services Committee now at the Project for the New American Century, a Washington think tank associated with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. "Every time there's an intelligence failure, there's hearings and people express themselves shocked. But the larger issue is that Congress has really been a nonplayer in all these issues," Donnelly says.

It's a pattern that repeats itself, says Angelo Codevilla, a former staffer on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and a current professor of international relations at Boston University. Codevilla cites a series of CIA failures, including the Bay of Pigs as well as the inability to predict the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or the collapse of the Soviet Union. What happens, he says, is this: "The agency screws up. And every time some president or the Congress gets some inquiry going to ask how this could this have happened, some insider is appointed to run the inquiry. It comes back with a series of recommendations. The recommendations note that the agency is already moving to fix the problem, and that they have every confidence that the problem will be fixed." Then along comes the next failure.

One problem may be a lack of new blood in the agencies. "I don't see any particular reason why the same individuals who have been rather -- how to put it politely? -- reluctant to push the agency toward serious reform are going to do so now," says former spy Reuel Marc Gerecht, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "Congress has long been captured by the idea that oversight is primarily designed to ensure that the agency doesn't do anything we'll be embarrassed about. The real truth is that the agency is doing something we should be embarrassed about -- it's incompetent."

With the much-anticipated joint intelligence committee hearings now having begun, Washington is swirling with rumors. Some observers suspect that the news stories about the FBI memo, followed by revelations that the CIA had briefed President Bush about terrorist hijacking threats last August, were the result of dueling FBI and CIA leaks, as each agency sought to make the other look bad. How will it all play out? "I think the CIA is less vulnerable than the FBI," speculates Jeffrey H. Smith, former general counsel to the CIA who is now a partner at the Arnold and Porter law firm. But when the finger pointing is done, Smith adds, the focus needs to be on real reform. The two agencies must find a way to work in concert -- and to do so efficiently when lives are at stake.

In response to such concerns, FBI director Robert Mueller has proposed creating a "super squad" of counterterrorism analysts and linguists, and other national security experts have proposed creating a whole new agency -- a domestic CIA -- to fill the gap between domestic law enforcement and international intelligence. Some observers have suggested that Congress create a new select homeland defense committee to oversee the various agencies that together are supposed to protect U.S. security.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is nearly certain: CIA Director George Tenet, the one cabinet-level appointee who has served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, is likely to see his powers increased. "The recommendations likely to come out of congressional intelligence oversight will fit the general pattern," Donnelly predicts. "'Give the CIA more money, more power, and centralize all intelligence gathering under the director of central intelligence.' It is rewarding failure."