The Limits of Intelligence Reform

Courtesy Reuters


If the attacks of September 11, 2001, changed everything, then it is also true that some things changed more quickly than others. Within a year and a half, the United States fought one war and prepared for another, and Congress passed two sweeping bills, the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, to address the war on terrorism's domestic front. But it took more than three years, a best-selling report, and a bruising fight on Capitol Hill for Congress to pass a bill addressing the issue of intelligence failure. That legislation, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, was signed by President George W. Bush in December 2004 and hailed by many intelligence reform advocates as a major victory. Its core innovations included the creation of a new director of national intelligence (DNI) and the charter of a national counterterrorism center, two recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that sought to remedy insufficient information sharing within the long-fractured intelligence community and establish more coherence in setting and meeting priorities.

This transformation owed much to the 9/11 Commission and the victims' families who backed it. Its gripping report concluded with a set of proposals for overhauling not just the spy agencies but congressional oversight as well. Rather than disbanding after issuing its report, the commissioners kept the heat on Congress and the White House through the summer and autumn of 2004. The momentum of the report, combined with a unique convergence of political forces, paved the way for a set of reforms that had previously lacked the traction to succeed in getting implemented.

This achievement is all the more remarkable given that between the end of the Cold War and the September 11 attacks, no fewer than six independent commissions and three government reviews tackled intelligence reform -- all to no avail. One long-standing concern was that the CIA director also served as the titular head of the 14 other agencies in the intelligence community, most of which are in the Pentagon, even though he effectively

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