Some see a troubling 'militarization' of American intelligence. What that means for national security may have less to do with bureaucratic turf wars than with what the military thinks intelligence is for.
A satellite image of Hilla, Iraq, overlaid with information from Army engineers. Images such as these have provided tactical intelligence to soldiers on the ground. (The New York Times)
THE CIA WAS CREATED in 1947 in response to what was at the time the greatest intelligence failure in American history: the inability to foresee, despite myriad clues, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The military had little interest in the creation of a competitor to its own intelligence services. But, according to Thomas Powers, a historian of intelligence and author of ''The Man Who Kept the Secrets" (1979), a biography of the CIA director Richard Helms, the decision to put the new intelligence agency under civilian rather than military control grew partly out of the disdain with which the military officer corps regarded intelligence work.
''Serious military officers didn't want intelligence assignments, they wanted to control troops in the field," Powers says. ''Intelligence assignments took one off the track for a general's star."
Today, the Defense Department can safely be said to take intelligence more seriously. Eighty percent of the national intelligence budget goes to the Pentagon, which contains the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and the intelligence branches of each of the armed services. Traditionally, though, the CIA, because it coordinated all of the other intelligence agencies and packaged the resulting information into the president's daily intelligence briefing, was preeminent.
That changed in 2004, when congressional legislation that grew out of the 9/11 Commission report in effect demoted the agency. At the same time, there's been a sense among legislators and intelligence insiders that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his undersecretary in charge of intelligence, Stephen Cambone, have aggressively pushed to bring more intelligence functions under the Pentagon's umbrella. That effort includes, for example, the creation of an organization, the Strategic Support Branch, with the authority to recruit spies and run counterterrorism operations even in places far from the battlefield-jobs traditionally left to the CIA.
This may help explain why President Bush's nomination of Michael Hayden, an active-duty Air Force general, to replace former congressman Porter Goss as the next CIA director touched off a worried clamor about the agency's independence from military meddling. Representative Peter Hoekstra, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, called Hayden-who ran the NSA before becoming National Intelligence Director John Negroponte's second in command-"the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time." Other lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, expressed similar concerns.
To some national security experts and former intelligence officials, the fears about Hayden are overblown. As they point out, several active-duty military officers have led the CIA in the past, and Hayden, when he headed the NSA, publicly stood up to Rumsfeld on the issue of intelligence funding. But that doesn't mean, those same observers argue, that there's no cause for concern about what many see as the broader ''militarization" of American intelligence.
Hayden's nomination has been portrayed as part of a turf war between Rumsfeld and Negroponte (both have publicly rejected that interpretation). But bureaucratic gamesmanship aside, what does it mean for the Pentagon to take a greater role in intelligence? What effect could it have on what professionals call the ''intelligence product"-the information and analysis that the government uses to try to better understand its friends and enemies?
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The Pentagon's push into covert operations-the use of Special Operations teams, for example, to hunt down suspected al Qaeda members-has generated a fair amount of news coverage. But it's not just uniformed officers who think soldiers might have a role to play in that area. ''There are arguments on both sides of this issue," says John Prados, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive and the biographer of former CIA director William Colby, ''but the general consensus of experts who have looked at this-including the 9/11 Commission, which explicitly recommended this in its report-has been to hand the covert missions to the military." Many such operations, after all, are essentially military in nature and already rely heavily on military training and logistics.
What worries some experts, however, is a shift in the balance of power within the US intelligence infrastructure as the CIA is weakened and the Pentagon expands its role. For one thing, the Pentagon's intelligence activities largely escape congressional scrutiny. ''Rumsfeld and Cambone claim that everything they do is a military operation," says Richard Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, ''[and] that therefore nothing that they do should have oversight by the House and Senate intelligence committees. But they are doing things that are clearly intelligence."
Up until now, another check on Pentagon intelligence agencies has been the CIA itself. During the Cold War, CIA intelligence estimates provided a counterpoint to Pentagon assessments, which tended to reflect the Pentagon's own institutional desires by producing larger estimates of the Soviet arsenal and more pessimistic assessments of Soviet intentions. ''If we had the military in control of intelligence, they'd always get all the weapons systems they wanted," Powers says. Historically, ''they've delivered intelligence that can help them in political battles over the missile programs, tank programs, and submarine programs they want."
But according to Jamie Gorelick a Democratic member of the 9/11 Commission and the CIA's National Security Advisory Panel, disputes between the CIA and DIA have had less to do with turf or budget battles than with the fact that each works for a different client. The NSA, the NRO, and the NIMA, while technically part of the Pentagon, have a national mandate, but the DIA (the CIA's closest competitor) and the military intelligence arms have traditionally focused on the sort of information that would be of interest to a military commander-troop levels or weaponry or target locations. The CIA, on the other hand, sees itself as having a broader field of focus, taking in political and diplomatic concerns as well as military ones.
''It's mostly the difference between tactical and strategic concerns, in a gross sense," says Gorelick. If more of the intelligence the president reads in his daily briefing is being collected and analyzed by the Pentagon, Gorelick worries, the picture presented may be an incomplete one.
Juliette Kayyem, a counterterrorism specialist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, also sees a fundamental difference between the military and CIA mind-set. ''It's a sense of priorities, of what intelligence is about. We should think of intelligence being not simply preparation for the battlefield, but the whole array of intelligence activities, from reading Le Monde to checking out jihadist websites.
''Maybe before Sept. 11, we so myopically looked at state-based threats that we missed al Qaeda," she adds. ''Now we are turning intelligence into an agent of war and military action, and we're just as likely to miss important threats."
Clarke, however, believes that concerns about a Pentagon takeover of intelligence are premature. Through the DIA, he points out, the Defense Department ''has been doing intelligence collection and analysis since 1961, tactical and strategic." If it's coordinated, he believes, there's no reason that the Pentagon and the CIA can't share those duties.
Mark Lowenthal, former assistant director of the CIA, puts it somewhat differently. The point, for Lowenthal, is not that CIA analysis is deeper or more valid than what's produced at the Pentagon. It's just different, and dependably so. With the weakening of the CIA, he says, ''The president won't suddenly be reading situation reports of tactical engagements in Iraq." Still, he says, it's in no one's interest to see the CIA weakened.
''We've organized our intelligence community around a few principles. One of them is competitive analysis, the idea that if you have different agencies with different points of view, you'll have better intelligence."
''That's important," he says. ''We don't want to lose that."
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.