Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John E. McLaughlin
Business Executives for National Security Annual Forum
23 June 2004
Let me say at the outset that for American intelligence, Business Executives for National Security (BENS) is a strong and very much appreciated source of sound advice—whether the problem is finding better ways to track terrorist finances, check the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or reform our own systems of pay and promotion. You know the issues, and you have worked hard to understand how the Intelligence Community really works. Thank you for all that you do.
When I saw the three questions I was asked to address this morning, my first thought was to seek refuge in the economy of words for which my profession is famous. But these times and this audience—posing questions like: “Intel Reorganization: Now? How much? How fast?—require answers more extensive than: Maybe, some, and fairly.
So let me give it a try.
It is of course no secret that our nation is in the midst of another debate about intelligence—what we need and how best to get it. The facts that led us here—the attacks of September 11th and the war in Iraq—are unique. The debate itself is not. We have had several in our history. Let me mention just two.
In 1975, around the time I joined CIA, one blue-ribbon panel—the Rockefeller Commission—and two Congressional committees—Church and Pike—were investigating American intelligence. Though that period is remembered now for the damage done to our agencies, their morale and capabilities, it also led to something positive: a foundation for oversight that, at its best, has been constructive for the Intelligence Community and connected us more closely to the American people.
In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, there were at least half a dozen major efforts to chart the future of intelligence, ranging from university groups and Congressional committees to the Aspin-Brown commission. Though that period is remembered now for shrinking budgets and vanishing talent, it, too, had positives: Austerity forced the Intelligence Community to work more closely across organizational lines. And support to the military—daily, often tactical support—became a top priority as the United States intervened in places like Bosnia and Kosovo.
As these brief examples show, national initiatives to change intelligence tend to be a mix of pain and gain. But there appears to be an appetite for it again —in both parties and among key segments of the public.
Much of the impetus for it comes from the impression that perceived shortcomings in our work—be it on counter-terrorism before 9/11 or Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs—reflect a broken system and a Community in disarray. That impression is false.
What shortcomings there were—and there were shortcomings—were the result of specific, discrete problems that we understand and are well on our way to addressing or have already addressed. And the focus on where we are thought to have gotten it wrong has obscured—even more than usual—the successes we have had in the fight against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
This is an important point, because as we weigh changes in our community, it is important to recall that we helped forge a global alliance against al-Qa’ida and its sympathizers. Played a pivotal role in flushing it from its Afghan haven. Have run to ground two-thirds of the leadership al-QA’ida had in place on September 11th, and shattered a host of cells and conspiracies—before and since.
As a Community, we have run the sensitive operations and provided the accurate analysis to expose proliferation activities in Iran and North Korea. And unraveled the WMD programs and networks of Libya and of A.Q. Khan, one of the most dangerous proliferation threats the world has faced.
Here’s my point: Those are not the achievements of dysfunctional agencies.
The question to ask is not why an entire system broke down—it did not, and it has not—but rather why it did not perform in every instance as well as it might have. And whether we, in the Intelligence Community, are learning from the experience.
But if there is to be change—structural change—the goal we all share is to get it right, to improve intelligence.
But how? There is no shortage of ideas, opinions, critiques, and proposals. I will not try to weigh them all here—a task that would demand more time than patience provides.
Instead, I will share some personal thoughts on the issue. And highlight considerations that may help you form your own opinions on a topic vital to the security of all Americans.
As debate and discussion unfolds in the months ahead, you can expect to hear more from me and other leaders of our Intelligence Community. You can expect our views to be refined even further over time. And you can expect us to be active participants—from start to finish.
I don’t have to tell this audience that before you can set about improving something, you need to know its current condition and the demands that are placed upon it. You need to know its present shape—its strengths and weaknesses.
Louis Sullivan, a brilliant architect and builder with the good sense to be in Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, said famously: “form follows function.” It does in building, and it does with us, too. Let’s talk about that.
Despite what you may read or hear, despite the Cold War roots of most of its agencies, this is not the same Community that helped fight and win that conflict. The world obviously has not been static, and neither have we. Our targets are different—and so is the mix of methods and technologies we use to get at them.
For example, when I started my career more than 30 years ago, the primary interest was less in any given country, than in Soviet influence on it. So much of what we did—in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe—went through that prism—as it had to. Life was more orderly back then.
That bipolar world has long since given way to a fragmented world. We still face a grave, overarching threat to the lives of Americans and the physical security of our nation. But the similarities end there.
Back then, we spoke of Soviet expansionism and the arms race. Now, we speak of the twin dangers of terrorism and proliferation—both of which work swiftly, globally, unconventionally, in the shadows.
Back then, we tracked big things—motorized rifle regiments, bombers, missiles, and submarines. Now, we hunt for small things—a single individual in a city of millions or a lone piece of data in the global communications network.
Back then, we worried more about governments and political parties—often hostile, but with interests that kept their actions within largely predictable bounds. Now, we have to pay attention to those things and more—to towns, to regions, to religions, to tribes. To the stresses on a society that might make it a factory or refuge for terrorism. And the terrorist enemy is predictable only in his aim: to kill, wound, and destroy.
Back then, the secrets we had to steal were shared by hundreds of individuals—in ministries and embassies—who formed a large pool for recruitment, with communications networks that could be compromised. Today, the secrets we most want and need to acquire are shared by a handful or at most a couple dozen people, who practice the tightest security and live outside the modern government structures we were accustomed to penetrating.
Back then, our analysts faced a shortage of data. Now, they struggle to keep up with it—to sort and store it. To find ways to share it with a host of partners, many of whom have come to us since 9/11, when the walls came down between foreign and domestic intelligence, and between intelligence and law enforcement.
Back then, we had to share information with key people in our own government and with intelligence partners overseas. Today, we must share with all of them but also with the highway patrolman in the American Midwest, who—along with other local officials—may have the best opportunity to spot suspicious behavior pointing to a terrorist threat.
Back then, even during the first Gulf War, being able to talk to people in a combat zone by secure telephone was an achievement. Now, we have instant messaging, secure video conferencing, communication by lap top and much more with our ops officers and analysts throughout Iraq.
The demands of these missions and the capabilities of information technology make the Intelligence Community far more than the loose confederation of agencies it once was. We have actually drawn much closer together. In the old days, it might have been forward-thinking to have a representative of the National Security Agency sitting at CIA or vice versa. Change NSA to FBI and you had something positively radical.
No more. We are way past that. You know about our centers—the Counterterrorist Center being the most famous—with officers from different intelligence disciplines and agencies working side-by-side. And the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which has built new relationships among analysts from agencies that did not always work as closely together.
Whether fusing the skills of analysts and ops officers—as CTC does—or synthesizing information from home and abroad—as TTIC does—the goal is to bring together smart people with different specialties and perspectives. To assemble their varied talents into teams real or virtual, of long or short duration. This has a lot to do with the successes we have had against our hardest targets. Most people don’t realize that to capture a terrorist like Hambali—the killer behind the Bali nightclub bombing in Indonesia—a lot of different pieces have to come together: across disciplines, agencies, and continents. And they did.
Is there more to do? Yes. Can we be better? Of course. But, as our country ponders changes in the structure of intelligence, there are three crucial considerations to bear in mind.
First, there is no formula for perfection in my business, any more than there is a concept of profit and loss. How do you match a hundred successes against a single failure?
Second, this would be no academic exercise. It will be hard—very hard. We are a nation at war. And one objective must be to minimize disruptions in the day-to-day work of intelligence.
Third, any reorganization must preserve the enormous gains we have made and lay the foundation for more.
Though it rarely makes headlines, there has been a real revolution in intelligence—from recruiting and technology to interagency cooperation and morale. One effect of that revolution is that knowledge about us has a shorter shelf life than ever. Experiences and impressions that are just a few years old may be seriously out of date. I would ask you to remember that when you hear people—even former intelligence officers—talking about our problems. What they may not know is that we have moved beyond the problems they remember and are grappling with new ones they haven’t even heard of.
For us, change has been a constant and the challenge now is to build on that transformation. To have form follow function—by recalling our fundamental tasks, which are the nation’s expectations of intelligence. What are they? We must constantly strive to protect Americans. To inform high-level policy through unique insights about the world. To support our military. And, as the President directs, to undertake covert action—the ability to not simply report on conditions overseas, but to change them.
The qualities those missions demand are equally daunting. Agility, speed, flexibility, adaptability. A capacity for both unilateral stealth and productive foreign liaison. For fusing information from all sources. And for ensuring that our nation’s clandestine operations and analysis are mutually supportive, share data, and are infused with professionalism and integrity. Against that backdrop, we do need a true source of central intelligence. And someone to run it.
One of the many proposals out there—an intelligence czar who would stand apart from CIA and oversee all aspects of American intelligence—was first floated in 1955 and has come up several times since.
I know the argument can be made for such a change, but in my personal view, it is not the best answer to the real challenges American intelligence faces in the 21st Century. In fact, I believe the benefits of a position like that can be found without the additional layers of command or bureaucracy such a change would inevitably bring. The benefits can be found by modernizing the structures we already have.
I said that we need a true source of central intelligence. In CIA, we have something close—something that can be made even closer. And, through the office of the DCI, we can deepen existing trends toward interdisciplinary, interagency cooperation and, with additional authority, achieve the greater agility and responsiveness that the challenges of the world increasingly require.
Let’s start with CIA, specifically the word “central.”
There is a tendency now to view CIA as “just another agency.” It is not. It is the only intelligence agency that has the following four characteristics: It has Global focus. It is Multidisciplinary. It integrates all intelligence sources. And, perhaps most important, it is non-departmental: that is it does not create or advocate policy. Nor is it a component of a department that does.
As such, CIA can be a neutral meeting ground for intelligence. A place where ideas—operational, analytic, and technical—are created. And where the ideas of other agencies are heard, tested, and added to the mix. CIA already does a lot of this. But I believe it can do more.
“Central” means that CIA is ideally positioned to draw from, coordinate with, serve and fairly represent the entire Community.
That is why Harry Truman asked Congress to create CIA back in 1947. That is why the DCI has also been the director of CIA. And that is why the DCI belongs there still.
If CIA is to meet its special responsibility, and respond to the requirements of today, here are four key changes that ought to be considered.
First, take steps to underscore CIA’s non-departmental, nonpolitical character. One way would be to appoint the DCI to a fixed term.
Second, increase the Director’s authorities with regard to all national intelligence agencies. This would be on condition of close consultation with the Secretary of Defense but with decision authority vested in the DCI, who would also have to accept accountability for meeting military intelligence requirements. At present, the DCI has allocational authority over about 10 percent of the Intelligence Community budget, a figure that hardly qualifies as “central.”
Third, adopt a variant of the Goldwater-Nichols concept to build a strong “Community officer” cadre. To reach senior rank, you should have one or more full-tour assignments in another Intelligence Community agency. The aim would be to create a large group of people who can help CIA manage Community responsibilities and cross-agency, cross-discipline teams on key substantive issues.
And, finally, shift more business toward Community-wide centers, building on the approach that has been so effective in counter-terrorism. For enduring issues of extraordinary importance to the country—weapons proliferation, for example—we need the quick, seamless fusion of data, analysis, and operations that the centers can provide.
This is about more than wiring diagrams. It is about flexibility and authority, and adaptability to bring together the right mix of people and the right mix of resources—from inside government and beyond. The flexibility to handle change routinely. To contribute decisively to what will be a long fight against terrorism, without losing sight of the other security priorities that lie before our nation, each with its own demands.
Ideas for intelligence reorganizations have been with us almost as long as modern intelligence itself. One of the earliest was from a pioneer in the field in the Second World War, General William J. Donovan. With battles still raging in Europe and Asia, he sketched out his confidential views of a peacetime intelligence service.
And—in a development that sounds all too familiar to us today—Donovan’s plan was leaked to the press, where it was pilloried as something it most surely was not: a blueprint for an American Gestapo.
So much for the “good old days.”
This early example of a “leak” brings to mind another requirement for national security in this new era, and that is a renewed commitment to security discipline in our government.
I will not say that everything stamped classified should be—secrecy is a grant of trust, not power. And I know that the overwhelming majority of American journalists are not only exacting, but courageous and patriotic. And the American people—through the press and their representatives in Congress—need to understand what we do on their behalf. What we do well, where we fall short, and what we are doing about it.
But they also need to understand—and I believe they do—that, taken to extremes, exposure of the nuts and bolts of our work undercuts our ability to do that work. I just wonder sometimes if everyone inside the Beltway or the media does understand this. Replacing a collection capability lost to leaks takes both time and money. But the real loss must be measured in a country that is less safe and less well defended.
In fact—and this is one of the most important points I can leave you with—our adversaries, not possessing the conventional power of the United States, search for ways to gain an asymmetric advantage over us. Think about this. Their ability to keep a secret is one of those ways. Especially now, when we have nearly lost our ability to do so.
Yes, there should be debates and discussions about intelligence—its structure and activities. That is fundamental to who we are as Americans.
As vital as secrecy is to intelligence—to our ability to save American lives—it must never become a wall that prevents an open, honest dialogue with the American public. And it has not.
That is why I am here today. And that is why I so appreciate your invitation and your patience, and look forward to your thoughts and questions.
Thank you very much.