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Why Intelligence Reform Matters

A Center for Threat Awareness Report

By Center for Threat Awareness, Senior Fellow Michael Tanji | November 28, 2007

The publication of several intelligence community studies and papers illustrates that little serious thought is being applied to the issue of intelligence reform. Platitudes, recycling failed policies, and the inability to deal with the real world guarantees future intelligence failures and a precipitous decline in intelligence community capabilities. How do we enact real reform and build a community that is prepared to deal with current and future threats?

This report, authored by Center for Threat Awareness Senior Fellow Michael Tanji, addresses these issues directly.

Why Intelligence Reform Matters

Three important documents published by the intelligence community serve as the official measures of how far intelligence reform has progressed since the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004: the Intelligence Community Human Capital Report; the Director of National Intelligence's 100 Day Plan; and the DNI's 500 Day Plan. A review of the highlights of each illustrates that true and meaningful reform is not simply a long way off, but practically impossible as long as we continue along the path laid out by those in charge of the process today.

The Human Capital Report is the most insightful and damning of the three reports, quantifying what most in the community have known for a long time: leadership is poor and untrustworthy; first-line supervision is virtually non-existent; and time-served is valued more than contributions made. The agencies in charge of the security of the nation are not just standard issue government bureaucracies: they retain the worst traits of such bureaucracies.

Current plans for reform - in the form of the National Security Personnel System and the Strategic Human Capital Plan - do little to nothing to assuage fears of a looming human resources disaster. Both are notable for what they do not address: the changing attitudes of people new to the workforce; the changing nature of work in the information age; and the inability to grasp what "pay for performance" truly means. We cannot hope to attract and retain the workforce of the future with strategies that address symptoms and not the underlying disease.

More than any other reform-centered activity, our ability to recruit, retain and manage a high caliber workforce is central to success; all other changes are not only a distant second in priority, but attempting to bring them to fruition with a sub-standard workforce is akin to building a race car and fitting it with a moped engine. At the start of the information age the community continues to cling to the vestiges of an industrial age system, which is a theme we will see repeated as we look at other reform efforts.

The first direct assault on the old intelligence community came in April of 2007 when Director of National Intelligence (DNI) McConnell launched his 100 Day Plan for Integration and Collaboration in the intelligence community. The "success" of the 100 day plan was used as a launch pad for a larger and longer 500 day plan, but just how successful was this initial effort? Let's take a look at the two key issues addressed: collaboration and integration.

A discussion with any current practitioners will reveal that collaboration may be policy at the national-level, but at all subordinate levels it is actively discouraged. You see, in the old order, collaboration opens up a window through which some other element or agency could co-opt your work as their own or use various political maneuvers to thwart your efforts while enhancing their own and gaining power over finite resources. While it seems like a practice too petty for such noble institutions, keep in mind that this is a bureaucracy. The first battle any agency fights - before it takes aim at a group like al-Qaeda or a nation like Russia - is with those agencies that do the same or similar work. Since standard bureaucratic shortcomings have not been addressed, collaboration is a non-starter for those whose careers depend on standard bureaucratic measures of success.

Some tout the creation and use of Intellipedia and classified blogs within the community as an indication that collaboration is taking hold, but these are mediums with related practices that should be the default way of working; they are not, they are adjuncts to the still-formal industrial-age processes that place a great reliance on bureaucratic gate keeping, internal politics, agency branding and the production of printed works. The retention of these practices actually retards the evolution reformers are trying to encourage.

With regards to integration we see the repackaging of old wine in new bottles with the third attempt to Goldwater-Nichol-ize the intelligence services. The new Joint Duty program is the latest iteration of the Intelligence Community Assignment Program, which has been serving as a de facto community employment service for a decade. Such programs are supposed to broaden your horizons, improve your promotion potential, and develop a cadre of leaders that will promote an actual sense of "community" amongst the 16 agencies that are otherwise forced to deal with each other.

Historically, except for the extremely idealistic, only three types of people participated in the program; those who were in a job they hated and who did not want to work for a contractor; those who could not get along with their boss; and those who were encouraged by their bosses - in lieu of actually going through the arduous termination process - to find something else, somewhere else. Not exactly a system designed to build a cadre of elites.

Few if any of those who participated actually saw any benefit. More often than not they simply went back to their old desks and worked their old missions. To bosses who never worked anywhere else, ICAP-ers were suspect, because they had all these not-invented-here ideas. All that talk about not being able to get ahead without having a rotation under your belt was of course just a lot of talk, because you get ahead by mastering internal agency politics and embracing the local bureaucracy not cavorting with your institutional enemy.

As a set of concepts for improving how the community works collaboration and integration are not entirely useless, but how these concepts have been executed to date has left much to be desired. Actually achieving success requires doing more than just declaring success. The proof is in the proverbial pudding, and as anyone in the community will tell you, no one is confusing the noxious mass on their plates with something palatable. This is why the DNI's 500 Day Plan is so disturbing if not outright dangerous to the cause of reform. Operating under the delusion of past accomplishment, the community is now in the early stages of nearly two-year departure from reality.

The 500 day plan seeks to enhance the declared-gains made in the area of collaboration by improving diversity. One could almost justify such a move if the idea was that diversity of opinion was the ultimate goal, but this being the federal government diversity actually means the hiring, retention and promotion of minorities. You need not take that on faith; merely consider the orientation of the universities being given particular attention in the community's Centers of Academic Excellence program. This is not to say that recruiting minorities is a bad idea, on the contrary, but such efforts fly in the face of an important reality: the community needs more Urdu speakers from Karachi not African-Americans from Georgia.

The second focus area in the plan involves information sharing, which by and large can be fixed by lowering technical barriers (something that is actually being accomplished by the chief technology and information officers of the Pentagon and intelligence community) and judiciously reducing the use of restrictive classification markings. Designations like "Originator Controlled" are meant to protect sources and methods, but in practical terms they are a way for agencies to restrict the use of information for political purposes. This goes back to the phenomenon of institutional credit: arguably the single greatest hindrance to getting buy-in on reform.

The next focus area is Collection and Analytic Transformation, which is in part a re-hash of the goals of the Collaboration focus area, part tedious recitation of various banalities (strengthening capabilities, expanding strategies), and part mechanism for growing the bureaucracy. This latter, inauspicious goal - the creation of a National Intelligence Coordinating Center - is essentially an attempt to build a physical body around the National Intelligence Priorities Framework: the process by which agencies coordinate what missions will receive the most attention. This is a process that has worked rather well for several years now, but it is standard government logic that anything that is working well should be able to work better if it is assigned its own bureaucracy.

"Build Acquisition Excellence and Technology Leadership" is arguably the worst focus area of the plan, and is assuredly the portion most likely to fail. Not because these problems cannot be solved, but with regards to acquisition there are extremely powerful incentives to maintain the status quo; with regards to technology the community has yet to adopt an information-age mindset.

The acquisition process is governed by a series of laws and regulations that rival the US tax code for complexity and incomprehensibility. Ostensibly designed to ensure the government gets its moneys worth from its expenditures, it is a system mastered by those doing the selling and that taxes the capabilities of those doing the buying. One need only note that senior community management all tend to retire and take jobs with the very firms they were awarding contracts to in order to understand who really wields the power of the purse.

The creation of an intelligence community DARPA to help achieve "technology leadership" may very well infuse the community with more and more advanced technology, but if history holds true to form it is also likely to serve as a choke point at which serious advances fail to reach those who need them most. No matter how effectively such a process may be designed, it cannot help but work at the speed of government, whereas those making serious inroads into technical and informational problems are working on Internet time.

Modernizing business practices is the next focus area, and while it contains a number of good ideas, it does not go nearly far enough; perhaps because there are so many little things in this area that need fixing. Astute readers will note that the discussion does not address consolidating to reduce duplication of various business processes across the community.

The most meaningful and important aspect of the 500-Day Plan was saved for last: Clarify and Align DNI Authorities. That the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act provided for meta-level authority is great, but absent clear, detailed guidance on what the DNI can and cannot do, any recalcitrant agency head can come up with a dozen reasons why he will not or cannot comply with national-level guidance. Assuming that the DNI, the president and congress are actually interested in any reform, much less meaningful and wide-ranging reform, that lack of unambiguous authority means there will be no significant changes in how the community operates or is managed.

The bottom line is that as a strategy the 500 day plan is a tentative and symptom-focused effort that ignores the underlying causes of what makes the community so dysfunctional. Even if it was a much more practically focused and far-reaching effort, without the ability to compel changes it is largely an academic exercise that unfortunately will have very real and negative consequences.

Confident that no meaningful change will come about through the implementation of current plans, but not totally devoid of hope for the cause of reform, we offer our own reality-based suggestions for consideration.

The lack of collaboration in the community today has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with institutional structure and culture. Changing those factors will by default result in the inclusion of more diverse opinions, result in more insightful and comprehensive production, and improve the level of service the community provides to its consumers.

Start by establishing a system that focuses on the individual and their community-wide reach and impact. The exclusive adoption of mechanisms like Intellipedia for intelligence production, and classified blogs for pre-production collaboration could easily include an eBay or Amazon-like ranking system for accurately and automatically assessing intelligence officer performance. A system that ranks one's performance and community-level penetration (think blog trackbacks) would drive people to partner with the best regardless of agency, making institutional stovepipes increasingly irrelevant.

Current integration plans fail to address the issue of those without readily transposable skills and more importantly those who seek to become functional experts, not managers. Does the lack of portable skills or disdain for the balance sheet mean they are to be the community's permanent underclass? Meaningful personal interaction across the community will come when officers can freely (or nearly so) move from task to task where and when they are most needed. Three weeks in a crucible with peers during a crisis can be more meaningful than two years on a relatively peaceful standard rotation. If "community" is to have primacy, give mission managers and not discrete agencies the power to direct assignments. And as long as "management" and not "leadership" is the primary skill sought out at the uppermost positions within agencies, simply assigning managers from one agency to another based on functional requirements and skill sets will ensure that the community is awash in people with diverse backgrounds: no special program needed.

Both collaboration and integration measures are merely a half-steps towards a more radical but ultimately more effective solution: consolidation. When collection agencies divest themselves of their analytical capabilities, and analytical capabilities are centralized into regional and functional centers under a single agency, it will eliminate duplication of effort as well as counterproductive inter-agency competition.

Collection and analysis as functions do not need specific attention if efforts to improve collaboration and integration are implemented. Tradecraft in both fields is tested and proven, though one could argue that more robust education in analytic technique, and a more creative, aggressive posture in human collection is needed given the roles both will play in future conflicts. The first situation is readily addressed; the latter requires a treatment that is beyond the scope of this effort.

Simplifying the acquisition process is an admirable goal, but limiting the role former government officials can play in corporations that do business with the community would be a more effective if indirect way to improve the community's bang-to-buck ratio. At the same time re-assess the role contractors play in the community. Contractors play an important role, but when we cannot perform core missions without them then the DNI should be arguing for a larger workforce.

When considering what business practices to retool, do not ignore the small things. Unify clearance and security systems so that "community" badges actually work at every agency. Dispense with paper timecards, leave forms and travel vouchers. Ditch the de facto dress code for anyone that does not have to put on a public face. A quick poll of the workface will generate many more suggestions, just pick half-a-dozen a year and liberate the workforce from drudgery and annoyance. These little things add up and are as much a hindrance to success as any major policy problem.

When reform efforts stall for no practical reason, a reform-minded DNI needs to be able compel if not outright coerce compliance and alignment with national-level goals. Since this cannot be done today, the power to do so must be actively and aggressive sought by lobbying congress and the president. Without clear and absolute control over his domain, the DNI might as well stop pretending that reform is an issue he is going to spend any time on at all.

There are several other reform-oriented issues that were not considered in the government's agenda, but are nevertheless worth mentioning:
  • Create a common investigative standard and create a truly portable security clearance. Automate the background check and reduce associated paperwork. The one-on-one interview of both subject and subject's contacts cannot be avoided, but face reality: when interviews are conducted by "body shops" that will employ anyone with a pulse, the security value of interviews drops precipitously. If we will not dispense with or discount interviews then we need to enhance the cadre of federal investigators.
  • The argument for a more robust federal security and counterintelligence workforce is further reinforced when one considers the community's dire need for high-risk individuals. Almost certainly new citizens with close familial ties to their home countries, they are blackmail and espionage concerns. Frequent and intense monitoring and testing should allow us to mitigate risks while leveraging rare and desperately needed skills, but we cannot do this today with our skeletal counterintelligence capabilities.
  • Slots for advanced military and intelligence schools are few and highly competitive. Why? Limiting education perpetuates ignorance. Forge an inter-agency agreement that allows community staff to enroll in each military service's graduate school correspondence program. Take a hint from elite schools like MIT, Harvard and Stanford and offer relevant education via an OpenCourseWare model or podcasts. For a nominal investment the knowledge available to the workforce expands dramatically.
  • Architecture plays a major role in workplace performance but is rarely considered when discussing how to maximize workforce performance. Cube farms may be an efficient use of space but they are not an environment that supports concentration or ferments insights. Forced togetherness in the name of collaboration is a sham perpetrated by people who have private offices. People who think for a living need to be able to impose peace and quiet when necessary. Cube design has evolved since the '60s: invest in it.
  • Start acting on quality-of-life and survivability issues. The vast majority of people in the community do not actually need to be living and working in the DC area. In the Internet age the workforce is easily dispersible to more livable parts of the country. People with a more balanced work-life situation perform better on the job. A dispersed workforce is also one that is less likely to be impacted by an infrastructure failure and is more resilient to attack.
  • Whether dramatic or timid, bring about change by letting the bureaucracy work for you. Make attainment of reform goals a rated item on performance evaluations and a prerequisite for receiving not only promotion and performance awards, but any positive personnel action. Bureaucrats will concentrate on the factors upon which they are evaluated, so stop evaluating them on the procedures and practices you are trying to eliminate.
  • Finally, anyone serious about reform should be serious about who is going to help implement reform. You are not going to move forward by recycling those who screwed-up the past. The only lesson they have learned is that they do not have to worry about being held accountable.
To those of us whom intelligence reform is something of an obsession, we are disappointed in the pace and scope of change. In an age of free information the relevance of a large secret intelligence community becomes increasingly tenuous if that community continues to perform below expectations. DNI McConnell deserves credit for laying out specific goals and a time line for accomplishing them, but the fact that high-level policy has not translated into practical application at the operational level is not a positive sign.

We have witnessed first-hand the power of fourth-generation warfare - de-centralized and asymmetric in nature - and the challenges it can pose to large, hierarchical, differently-focused institutions. Our intelligence agencies - and the military institutions they support - find a traditional air, land and sea battle with China to be a much more attractive future because it is what they understand. Sadly, the future of warfare will be filled with far more battles like those we have fought for the streets of Iraq, and the efforts to defend our computer networks against foreign penetration; fights the current generation of national security leadership struggle to comprehend and do little to prepare for. We cannot hope to maintain our position of strength in the world with an intelligence community that is watching for a Soviet armored column to punch through the Fulda Gap. We need to prepare for the fights that are coming, not the ones we want to have.

Preparing for the future is almost certainly going to require the application of creative destruction on a scale that is unlike anything government has ever witnessed. Some view this approach as risky - something that should not be attempted in the middle of a war - but failing to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances and conditions only puts the community farther behind our increasingly creative adversaries. We can afford to make mistakes as long as we are moving forward, because it is no major affair to roll back to a previously known and tested state should a promising idea prove unworkable. That we are not wiling to take these sorts of calculated risks is setting us up for yet another catastrophic event at the hands of those who view risk as a virtue.

Feedback

Taking potshots at the difficulties of workforce development is easy to do. Agreed, the current diversity movement within the COEs has been less than successful, and the upcoming language initiatives may not be all that spectacular either. People are attracted to formal bureaucracies, not reforming bureaucracies. Nobody wants evaluated by a moving goalpost. I predict that the needed dispersion and portability (in education, architecture, and worklife) will come when more, not less, formality is achieved.

A reasoned critique with alternatives is a pot shot? We must be working off a different lexicon.

So if things aren’t ideal, or even in the ballpark, why defend them or even support them? Why settle? It’s too hard? What’s hard is fighting with self-imposed handicaps. I would much rather fight the bureaucratic battle than the shooting kind.

Moving goal posts? The game analogy falls short given that the playing field has no boundaries. The meaningful measurement is effectiveness, not a tally, and even though it can be done, no eval system captures such a thing.

I don’t see how things can get more formal and I think the trend is headed away from bureaucracies, not towards them. The shifting demos of the new and future workforce aren’t likely to stand for 30 years in the current system. Cachet and unique opportunity will go so far, and then life will interfere. If we’re not shifting accordingly now, we’re going to be too far gone to catch up.

By potshots, I meant your line which said we don't need more African-Americans from Georgia. I've seen some of these recruits and they can speak Urdu. Along my suggested lines of more, not less, formalization, what they need is a formal mentoring system (perhaps from retirees) and clear management institutions. Your reform proposals rest primarily on the arguments that technology and 4GW call for more fluid structures, but I would argue that such things call for tighter structures. Reforming organizations as you suggest may risk leaks, breaches, and betrayals. I do like, however, your ideas on a common clearance and bridging the military-civilian divide (I would add academic favoritism as a concern too). The lexicon used here; collaboration and integration, seem to suggest formalization to me. For example, we know from fusion center research that working side by side is more effective than videoconferencing. Fixing what needs fixing does not call for the latest business fad, but a return to basics, like ethics and methods.

That the statement seems untoward doesn’t detract from the reality that a major effort to recruit Americans who are largely close to the mean does not help us when we need outliers. I’ve dealt first hand with the language/culture problem and current efforts are not working. Focusing on HBCUs makes people feel good; it isn’t a strategy for filling this particular gap.

Mentoring has long been a weak spot and I’m with you on any serious effort to make it work. Compiling a list of gray beards and telling new hires, “call these people if you have questions,” is not a real solution, but it is often what is employed. And they wonder why it is so hard to bridge the generation gap.

As far as leaks and betrayals go, it is not captured in this piece but I’ve written before on the need to boost security and CI. No one and no practice is risk-free; the trick is managing the risk. Absent sufficient capability in this area, which has long suffered, that we bleed out is not in question, just how fast.