Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 20, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SHAKING UP INTELLIGENCE....Over at the Prospect, Matt Yglesias suggests it would be a good idea to create a new cabinet level position in charge of all our intelligence agencies:

That the community's work should be coordinated, rather than confused and riven by interagency rivalries, is obvious. Indeed, it's so obvious that the legislation setting up the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and other key pillars of the American national security apparatus in the wake of World War II envisioned just that.

....There's no reason to think the controversy should take a particularly partisan cast, as witnessed by the bipartisan 9-11 Commission's recent embrace of the idea; indeed, a previous bipartisan congressional inquiry into September 11 also reached the same conclusion. According to all reports, meanwhile, a special presidential advisory panel set up several years ago under former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft recommended something very similar.

I don't have any personal axe to grind about how the American intelligence community should be organized, but I'm suspicious of this argument for a few reasons.

First, investigations tend to find what they set out to find. Investigate NASA after a shuttle crash and guess what? They weren't cautious enough. Investigate the CIA after they failed to stop 9/11 and guess what? They weren't aggressive enough. (Then investigate them again after no WMD is found in Iraq, and guess what? Yep: they weren't cautious enough.) Overly obvious recommendations like these should be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, it's not immediately clear to me that centralizing a $40 billion bureacracy necessarily makes it more responsive. It might, and I'll keep my mind open on this, but it's hardly an open and shut case. Feith's little fantasy shop in the Pentagon obviously got out of control before the war, but overall it's not clear that our problems over the past few years were caused by the fact that, say, the NSA and DIA are under DoD control.

Third, the military has a legitimate need for its own intelligence arms. Placing them under an outsider's control might genuinely restrict their ability to do their jobs.

Fourth, one effect of centralization is that the president would hear only one interpretation of intelligence. Is that necessarily good? Having competing sources of information can be a considerable benefit to a president who knows how to make use of this, and I'm not sure we should rearchitect the intelligence community just because George Bush doesn't seem to be such a president. Electing a better president seems the better option.

Generally speaking, when bureacracies have problems, investigators have a bias toward recommending big organizational changes because they're easy and dramatic. If the bureacracy is tightly controlled from the top, they suggest this is stifling innovation and that more control should be devolved downward. If the bureacracy is loosely controlled, they suggest that stronger management from the top will provide better coordination and a stronger sense of purpose. These recommendations are so preordained that they should always be treated with a fair amount of skepticism.

Like I said, I'll keep an open mind on this. But I want to hear some pretty good reasons why an intelligence czar is the answer, and I also want to be convinced that the folks recommending this understand all the drawbacks of centralization and are sure they don't outweigh the benefits. Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 9:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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