On President Trump’s first full day in office, he went to the CIA and promised to back the nation’s spy agencies, but his time would be better spent downsizing the sprawling intelligence community, says Ivan Eland.
By Ivan Eland
Originating from the dispute over whether the Russians hacked the U.S. election and tried to influence it, rumblings came from the Trump transition team about reorganizing the intelligence community or parts thereof. That’s not a bad idea at all.
Prior to 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community had grown to 16 sprawling, secretive agencies, which stayed in their stovepipes, thus cooperating insufficiently. For example, the CIA and FBI had coordination problems that really impaired the government’s warning of the 9/11 attacks.
Logically, coordination problems tend to multiply the more intelligence agencies the government has and the bigger they get. Yet after 9/11, the George W. Bush administration and Congress instead used political logic. They wanted to be perceived as “doing something,” often anything, about the problem — no matter whether it would be effective in dealing with it, a mere placebo with no effect but looked good, or an action that was actually counterproductive.
“Reform” of the intelligence community after 9/11 fell into the last category. After a crisis, politicians often add government bureaucracy to show the public they are not letting a problem slide. In this case, they added yet a 17th intelligence agency — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — to “coordinate” the CIA, FBI, NSA and other mostly gargantuan organizations of the 16-agency community.
Of course, one person couldn’t herd all these big cats, so the DNI had to have a new bureaucracy to allegedly tame them. Yet the DNI’s bureaucracy did not win control over the budgets of the other 16 agencies. In fact, most of the intelligence community’s budget is controlled by the massive Department of Defense — in which many of the intelligence agencies reside.
Complicated enough? In the government, like everywhere else, controlling money directs effort. Thus, the DNI has been ineffectual in coordinating the U.S. intelligence community.
Instead of adding yet another bureaucracy to coordinate the existing ones (after 9/11, the president and Congress did the same thing in the homeland security sphere by creating the new Department of Homeland Security to incorporate and coordinate all the government entities dealing with that function), the politicians should have done the opposite.
The new enemy, which is not so new anymore, was small, agile cells of terrorists, not the traditional slothful nation states of the Cold War, such as the Soviet Union. In bureaucratic parlance, the terrorist chain of command is simple and responsive. To counter this threat, the intelligence community must also be nimbler, not less agile.
Dysfunction and Inefficiency
This means that after 9/11, intelligence agencies and excess personnel should have been pruned, not added. Dysfunction and inefficiency would have also been reduced when dealing with threats from other nation-states.
A specific plan for streamlining the intelligence community to make it more agile and effective for a new global security environment might begin by eliminating the ineffectual Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Then the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should be merged with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which like the ODNI, sits on top of other intelligence agencies — the service intelligence agencies of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, which provide tactical battlefield intelligence.
The Marine and Coast Guard intelligence agencies could be folded under the umbrella of the Office of Naval Intelligence. The technical collection functions of the National Security Agency, The National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency should be merged into an Office of Technical Intelligence Collection.
The small Office of Intelligence and Research in the State Department, the only intelligence agency that was skeptical that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, should be left alone as a counter to the frequently alarmist threat inflation of the CIA/DIA.
The FBI should be returned to being a law enforcement agency, with its intelligence functions being transferred to the Office of Intelligence and Analysis in the Homeland Security Department. The intelligence branches of the Energy and Treasury Departments, as well as that of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the Justice Department, should be abolished (in fact, because the federal drug war has been such a costly and abysmal failure, the entire DEA should be dismantled).
Streamlining and Consolidation
Such streamlining of and consolidation in the intelligence community would enable many redundancies to be reduced or eliminated, thus eliminating much duplication and bureaucratic overhead.
In addition, during the Cold War the U.S. intelligence community concentrated on having the best technical means of gathering information in the world — satellites, spy aircraft, drones, and other technological marvels of modern intelligence gathering. However, such gadgets have their limitations when trying to penetrate a small, secretive terrorist cell; human agents are still needed. Yet a decade-and-a-half after 9/11, the intelligence community still needs to improve its human intelligence (humint) capability. One major reason humint has lagged is that it doesn’t generate big money contracts in states and congressional districts, as does the building of satellites, spy aircraft, drones, and other electronic collection gizmos.
Thus, some intelligence agencies need to be eliminated or combined with sister agencies and the excess personnel eliminated. On the other hand, money should be taken away from technical collection and used to recruit more human agents.
In sum, almost any Trump administration shake-up of the ossified intelligence community would be welcome.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. [This article first appeared as a blog post at Huffington Post.]