Early this summer, I received an intriguing offer from the U.S. intelligence community. No, not to be a spy. (CIA regs have largely banned recruiting American journalists since the mid-'70s.) My invite was tamer than that but still enticing: Would I be interested in being a fly on the wall during an innovative workshop on extremism, sponsored by the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence?
The DNI was founded 18 months ago to bring order and reform to the nation's sprawling, dysfunctional intel community, still reeling from failures tied to 9/11 and Iraq. Among the DNI's many initiatives was this new, monthlong workshop called SHARP (for Summer Hard Problems). SHARP was designed to help break down the absurdly high walls around U.S. intelligence, by bringing 20 outside experts together with 20 top intelligence analysts. My would-be hosts seemed serious about battling what's come to be called "groupthink" in the intel community the kind of conventional wisdom that ended up getting wrong almost every aspect of Saddam'sweapons programs.
The offer was hard to refuse. With U.S. News paying my expenses, my editors agreed it made sense for me to sit in on several days of discussion. Despite the friendly welcome from SHARP's staff, I was fairly radioactive, with intelligence analysts eyeing me with the kind of wariness reserved for Chinese spies and al Qaeda jihadists. But the sessions offered a rare window into not only some cutting-edge thought on extremism but also how reformers were trying to pry open an intelligence community so insular that it risked irrelevance in the Internet age. SHARP seemed like a step in the right direction. Indeed, at follow-up interviews at DNI headquarters, officials made the case that the workshop was but one facet of a series of reforms that, if successful, would be the most sweeping in the intel community's nearly 60-year history.
Here in Washington, the DNI has largely flown below the radar variously seen as a quiet work in progress or a misguided step that's added yet another layer of bureaucracy to America's embattled spy agencies. I'd done an earlier piece, "Mission Impossible," on failed attempts to reform U.S. intelligence and grew intrigued that there was a chance the DNI experiment might actually succeed. I teamed up with my colleague, U.S. News's national security reporter Kevin Whitelaw, one of the best in our business. Together, we offered the DNI people a deal of sorts: If they would let us interview their top managers, we would do our level best to make sense of all their reform efforts and push to get the resulting story on the cover of the magazine. To our surprise, DNI officials made available their entire top leadership from Director John Negroponte to the chiefs of budget, information technology, analysis, collection, science, and more. Even more surprising, all the interviews would be conducted on the record something all too rare in the intelligence world.
As the project took shape, other doors soon opened to us. We interviewed CIA Director Michael Hayden in his storied office at the agency's McLean, Va., headquarters. We sat down with Stephen Cambone, the Defense Department's powerful chief of intelligence, at his office in the Pentagon. And Kevin spent an extraordinary day at the DNI's National Counterterrorism Center the NCTC watching how the nation's new hub for terrorism data really operates. In addition, we talked to dozens of outside experts and critics, former intel officials, and sources on Capitol Hill, and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents strategic plans, working papers, speeches, congressional testimony, and more.
Critics have blasted the DNI for not moving aggressively enough, but after months of work, we came away impressed with the scope of the reforms underway from the revamped training of human spies to crackdowns on overbudget satellite systems to a renewed emphasis on accountability. Much, of course, remains obscure in a world of smoke and mirrors, of covert operations and black budgets, it's always tough to fit the puzzle pieces together. Abuses like politicized intelligence, secret prisons, and warrantless eavesdropping may derail attempts by reformers at a more accountable system. And while the push for reform appears genuine, the jury is still out: The intel community remains notoriously hard to change, and it will take years before one can measure the results.
With all that said, we came away encouraged by what we found. You can check it out at First Line of Defense, a special website set up for the project, where you'll find the two-part series that ran in U.S. News, plus a photo tour of the NCTC and extended interviews with DNI John Negroponte, CIA Director Michael Hayden, and the DNI's fascinating chief scientist, Eric Haseltine. Let us know what you think.
BAD GUY OF THE WEEK: Among the world's bad guys, Viktor Bout occupies a unique place. The Russian entrepreneur is the world's most notorious arms dealer, implicated in arming the Taliban, Columbia's Revolutionary Armed Forces, African rebels, and a host of other warlords, dictators, and despots. Breaking U.N. sanctions and embargoes seemingly at will, the Moscow-based Bout has fueled a host of conflicts that have wreaked havoc upon three continents. Already on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist for arming Liberia's murderous Charles Taylor, Bout, 39, was redesignated this week by U.S. officials, this time for his murky activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (He has denied any wrongdoing.) For more on Bout, see "The Merchant of Death," Doug Farah and Stephen Braun's superb piece in the new Foreign Policy.