Pity the poor CIA. Everyone seems to want a piece of its action.
The Pentagon has formed its own unit to conduct those intelligence operations generally assigned to the CIA’s paramilitary units, contending this will produce quicker, more reliable information for commanders in the field.
Never mind that the Pentagon’s own spying has been on about the same par in deficiencies as both the CIA’s and the FBI’s and that there really seems little need for the military to duplicate CIA operations.
Now the FBI wants to take over the one area of domestic activity afforded the CIA, recruiting operatives here who are traveling overseas and debriefing returning business travelers and students. Since these activities take place on U.S. soil, the bureau says they belong to it by right of eminent domain or constitutional fiat or the divine right of kings or whatever despite the fact the CIA has been conducting them for decades.
The FBI also wants to make sure it is the agency that disseminates any of the information gleaned from sources, foreign or U.S., living here. That would give it virtual control over all intelligence matters in this country.
Never mind that the FBI is just now - three years out from 9/11 - beginning to set up intelligence units in all its cops-and-robbers field offices. Never mind that the bureau can’t even get its e-mail straight to accept tips, and that its big computer initiative that was to solve the information-sharing snafu is a $170 million disaster and had to be abandoned. Never mind that the FBI has little experience in handling foreign intelligence assets. Never mind that the bureau is always generally behind in disseminating it reports and reportedly now has a sizable backlog of undistributed information.
The biggest “never mind” of all is that the FBI’s domestic counterintelligence operations are comparable to those of the Pinkerton detective agency, which helped prolong the Civil War by producing estimates of Confederate troop strengths that were greatly exaggerated. In the history of intelligence-gathering, the FBI’s rank may not even be that high _ as inquiries in the aftermath of 9/11 have revealed over and over. Well, at least the bureau is trying to enlarge its abilities, but as usual by grabbing for someone else’s territory.
The real issue here is, once again, what all this says about that status of the nation’s overall intelligence apparatus after three years of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing and hollow pledges and rushed legislation from the White House to the Capitol. If accurate intelligence is the first line of defense, and there is little dispute over that, the country is still in trouble.
All the infighting and lack of cooperation and battles over jurisdiction among the agencies that share the annual $40 billion budget for intelligence-gathering was supposed to be a thing of the past. The final piece of legislation to bring the capabilities together in a spirit of unity - the creation of a director of national intelligence - was passed in a fever at the end of the year. So why hasn’t anyone been nominated for the position?
President Bush says he is looking for the right person, presumably someone with the experience, skill and strength of personality to settle disputes and bring some semblance of cohesion to the puzzle. Even the strongest candidate will need Oval Office support to keep from just being another insignificant figurehead like the drug czar or the energy czar. But nothing is going to occur until the president steps in with all his force, settles on a nominee and personally orders everyone from FBI Director Robert Mueller to CIA Director Porter Goss to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and everyone beneath them to pay attention.
Michael Chertoff, nominated to be the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, also has a major role to play. Not only does he have the job of trying to make some sense out of an 180,000-person operation, he must be certain his various agencies receive the intelligence they need to head off another terrorist attack. The betting is he is tough enough to do both and won’t take a back seat to the Defense and Justice departments and the CIA on key intelligence matters.
Until the new chief spy is named and confirmed and Chertoff has been approved, it makes very little sense for either the Pentagon or the FBI to start picking away at the CIA or visa versa. Tell them all to back off, Mr. President, until this is sorted out. It seems an intelligent thing to do.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)