The inside story of how a band of reformers tried--and failed--to change America's spy agencies
Twice each week, a top-secret report with distinctive red stripes lands on the desks of select policymakers in Washington. Called the "Red Cell," it is the work of a CIA unit by the same name, set up after the 9/11 attacks to think "outside the box." "Some of it is really wacky, even scary," says an insider. "Like bombing Iran." The "Red Cell," in a very real sense, is emblematic of the trouble the U.S. intelligence community finds itself in today. Its reports, in-house critics say, are getting stale. "There's not a lot of young blood," an analyst says, "and there's not enough turnover."
That even the "Red Cell" analysts are having trouble thinking about the new challenges to the United States suggests how hard it will be to change America's much-maligned intelligence community, a $40 billion complex of 14 agencies in six cabinet departments plus the CIA. It is, by far, the largest, most expensive intelligence network in history. Created in 1947, the U.S. intelligence community has grown enormously in terms of bodies and dollars but also in the number and complexity of its responsibilities.
It has also, for many reasons, grown into a mess. "The intelligence community does not exist except as a figment of congressional imagination," confides one of its most senior officials. "We've created the hardest structure you can ever imagine--to understand, to manage, to be effective. We've created an impossible situation." Porter Goss, a CIA veteran who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, agrees: "Nobody in their right mind would create the architecture we have in our intelligence community today. It's a dysfunctional community."
One must go back 30 years to find a time when America's intelligence agencies were under such assault. Back then, America's spy agencies were lumbered with revelations of assassination plots, mind-control experiments, and illegal spying on Americans. Today, the charges are different. If the crisis a generation ago was of accountability, the trouble now centers more on competence. The release last week of the final report by the bipartisan 9/11 commission was just the latest humiliation for the intelligence community (Page 34); that report comes hard on the heels of the Senate Intelligence Committee's July 7 critique of the community's assessments of Iraq's prewar weapons capabilities.
After 9/11, Americans had good reason to assume the nation's intelligence capabilities were being improved. But then came the Iraq war and the subsequent revelations that the CIA's "slam dunk" intelligence on Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of banned weapons was a complete air ball, a casualty of badly forged documents, eager exiles with outlandish stories, and analysis that, in the most charitable sense, could be described as flawed. The Senate Intelligence Committee's 511-page Iraq report documents how on the country's weightiest issue--whether to launch a pre-emptive war--the U.S. intelligence community ended up wrong on virtually every critical point. "In short," laments Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the intelligence panel's ranking Democrat, "we went to war in Iraq based on false claims."
The record of failures, combined with new threats and high-tech challenges, has pushed serious intelligence reform to center stage for the first time in 40 years. In its final report, the 9/11 commission is calling for a major restructuring; many top intelligence officials agree change is overdue.