Paper - Program on Information Resource Policy, Harvard University

Intelligence Reform: A Question of Balance

| May 2005



On 22 July 2004 the 9/11 Commission released its report on the events surrounding the attacks of 11 September 2001. The 9/11 Report renewed calls for reform of the intelligence community (IC), continuing a long series of intelligence reform efforts that began shortly after the National Security Act of 1947 laid the foundation of the modern IC. As reform proceeds and government officials consider further changes, three topics remain relevant to on-going reform efforts: (1) the 1986 Goldwater–Nichols reform of the Department of Defense (DoD) and its applicability to the IC, (2) the common findings and recommendations of past reform efforts of the IC, and (3) the competing interests inherent in the IC that influence the pace and character of actual reform. This study explores these topics in the context of the 9/11Report and the subsequent reform efforts initiated by the executive and legislative branches. The 9/11 Report and statements by members of Congress, 9/11 commissioners, and others reveal that many stakeholders explicitly considered the Goldwater–Nichols Act a compelling model for legislative reform of a large bureaucracy. Chapter Two examines the DoD reform legislation, specifically the factors that motivated reformers to press for action, the congressional approach to reform, and the impact of the reform measures on the DoD. Three core issues drove the DoD reform effort: (1) the failure of joint action and the associated imbalance of responsibility and authority, (2) the effects of the DoD organizational structure on the military advice provided to the president, and (3) the poor quality of personnel filling joint duty positions. Goldwater–Nichols addressed these issues through several measures, including increasing the authority of the combatant commanders, making the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the principal military advisor to the president, and creating new incentives to encourage military personnel to seek joint duty assignments. Problems identified within the IC have some commonality with those that drove DoD reform efforts; however, there are also substantial differences, and understanding both is an important aspect in determining the applicability of DoD reform measures to the IC. Chapter Three turns to previous intelligence reform efforts in a search for common findings, four of which recur frequently: (1) further centralize the IC to reduce duplication and increase coherence of IC activities, (2) grant the head of the IC greater authority to govern, (3) improve the quality of analysis and estimates, and (4) improve congressional oversight. The IC has grown significantly in size and available resources over the last fifty-plus years; however, many of the underlying conditions that various studies and commissions found problematic persist. Chapter Four examines the recommendations of the 9/11 Report, many of which were similar to Goldwater–Nichols reform measures, and the resulting executive and legislative branch actions. After President Bush issued a series of executive orders, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 to further implement the 9/11 Report’s recommendations. Notably, Congress created new organizational constructs (e.g., national intelligence centers and the National Counterterrorism Center) with existing DoD structures in mind (e.g., unified commands and elements of the Joint Staff). However, real differences between the DoD reform effort and related intelligence efforts remain. A legislative analysis of the two efforts highlights potential difficulties in implementation and instances where analogies to the DoD may be less applicable. Chapter Five examines the organizational context of the IC that has impeded significant reform over the years and may slow the pace of the most recent reform efforts. Multiple competing tensions within the IC moderate the pace and extent of reform. These tensions include: (1) the extent of centralization versus decentralization, (2) “connecting the dots” versus failing to consider alternative analysis—the often-cited “groupthink” problem, (3) information sharing versus information protection, and (4) the sometimes conflicting intelligence needs of the national policymaker versus those of the departments. While it may be tempting to blame the slow pace of intelligence reform on bureaucratic intransigence, a more compelling reason is that there are legitimate interests on both sides of the balance. Successful reform thus requires finding the right balance between competing interests represented by a varied set of actors. Chapter Six pulls together the analysis in the preceding chapters and suggests that a wide range of government actors (e.g., Congress, the president, and IC leaders) can alter the underlying balances through a variety of mechanisms (e.g., legislation, executive orders, internal policies and processes) targeted at numerous aspects of the IC. Congress, through legislative action, may alter the balance of power among the competing parties with relatively enduring results. The leaders of the IC may recalibrate the balances via internal mechanisms that have the added advantage of precision and agility and thus offer the opportunity to respond dynamically to changing world events. The chapter concludes with four broad observations: (1) legislation is often only a part of any successful reform effort, (2) determining causality—that is, the effect of specific legislative measures on an organization—is difficult at best, (3) the legitimate intelligence needs of the departments, particularly the DoD, serve as a brake on centralization efforts, and (4) reform must address far more than organizational structure, to include organizational culture, processes, policies, incentive systems and supporting infrastructure. The unique organizational context of the IC—an interagency organization supporting multiple departments as well as national policymakers—provides one possible reason for the relatively modest changes with the IC prior to 2004. Reform of the IC is unlike reform of a single cabinet-level department, for at its most basic level the IC exists to enhance the effectiveness of multiple departments and senior policymakers in the accomplishment of their assigned functions. In short, the IC serves varied interests with sometimes shared and sometimes conflicting intelligence needs. Viewed this way, reform is not a discrete event but an on-going process, and success requires a multi-phased approach that allows for dynamic balance adjustments in response to ever-changing world events.

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For Academic Citation: Bansemer, John D.. “Intelligence Reform: A Question of Balance.” Paper, Program on Information Resource Policy, Harvard University, May 2005.