Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Peters on Intel Reform: Ralph!

In his latest NY Post column, Ralph Peters blows off some steam and just about blows his cookies. He's frustrated about the lack of true intel reform.

I share most of his concerns, although his statement -- "Having been inside that world, I can tell you that the No. 1 use of classification markings is to mask inadequate performance." -- is an unfortunate instance of hyperbole. But that's Ralph sometimes.

Unlike Ralph, I am no fan of Senator John McCain. Ralph refers to him as one of the "good guys" who wants to fix the intelligence system. Grandstander is more what I think.

That aside, it's another fine article from one of the brightest thinkers in the national security arena.

Having worked in intelligence for more than two decades, I was fascinated by all the lying as Congress wrestled with intelligence reform. So much of the intel world is hidden from the taxpayer's view that unscrupulous politicians, cynical bureaucrats and defense contractors can make any wild claims they wish with little fear of exposure.

The good guys, such as Sens. McCain and Lieberman, wanted to fix our intelligence system. Their opponents sought to protect power and funding. The good guys won a partial victory. But the intel community's mandarins remain committed to a system that is outdated, inadequate and very, very expensive.

Our national intelligence capabilities are not as bad as sensation-seeking critics tell us. The problem isn't that our intel system is inept. It's just mediocre. For 40 billion bucks a year, we should get occasional bursts of excellence. But we don't. The system plods on, devouring money and crushing talent, producing moderately helpful tidbits.

The issues at play are straightforward. For decades, we favored technology and slighted people, buying incredibly expensive satellites and other systems that were going to solve all of our intelligence problems, while minimizing the irksome human factor.

But we live in an age when the human factor is paramount — despite the siren song of technology. Ours is an age of fundamental hatreds, of religion reduced to bigotry and superstition, of a struggle over the fate of civilizations. Our intelligence community's approach has been to buy more systems that can locate warships, tanks and buildings, as if the Soviet Union had never dissolved.

Now the vested interests within the intel world, the same men who refused to regard terrorism as a significant threat, want to buy yet another $9.5 billion satellite. It wouldn't be useful in Iraq, or against terrorists, or even against the underground nuke sites in North Korea and Iran. It's a Cold War relic.

Our intelligence system needs people: analysts, agents, linguists, interrogators, special operators and counter-intelligence specialists. 9.5 billion bucks would buy a lot of talent. But the insiders are fighting to purchase that "stealth" satellite, even though it's a case of yesterday's technology designed to find yesterday's enemies.

Why can't this satellite scam be killed? First, because the shabby details of all the errors of judgment made by intelligence executives remain hidden behind classifications above the top-secret level. Having been inside that world, I can tell you that the No. 1 use of classification markings is to mask inadequate performance.

Our intel system continues to measure success the way the Soviets did, by fulfilling norms of volume, rather than concentrating on utility. During my own service, I found that our intel executives understood systems architecture, but had only a superficial grasp of actual intelligence work. You get to the top by buying stuff, not by thinking hard.

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