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Different era calls for changes in agency operations

Did we hear CIA director George Tenet correctly? Did he really tell the 9/11 commission last week that it will take “another five years of work to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs” to combat al-Qaida and other terrorists? And did he really go on to assert that “the same can be said for the National Security Agency, our imagery agency and our analytic community”?

Yes, he did. The first impulse is to wonder what these agencies have been doing since Sept. 11, 2001. Have they no sense of urgency about what, after all, is supposed to be the one function of government almost everybody agrees is legitimate: protecting the people from attacks by enemies foreign and domestic?

We should probably be grateful to Tenet. He has committed what the political community usually considers a gaffe, that is, an inadvertent blurting out of an inconvenient truth. In so doing, he has let slip one of the most fascinating open secrets of government.

In government, you see, failure and success are rewarded equally, and failure just might be better than success. If an agency can argue it is succeeding splendidly at its assigned mission, it can argue that it should be rewarded with a larger budget next year.

If an agency is demonstrably failing, however, it can be even better. The failure is never attributed to lack of focus, lack of management skills, lack of competence or lack of a clear definition of success. It is always attributed to lack of resources, which means the budget for next year needs to be dramatically larger.

How many times did former FBI Director Louis Freeh cite legal barriers and, more to the point, inadequate resources in defense of his agency’s failures?

What Tenet’s testimony should demonstrate, beyond the hothouse world of Washington and the professional policy community, is that the government intelligence agencies have become too large and sclerotic to do the jobs assigned them and might well be too cumbersome to reform.

Is it too late for what we suggested at the end of the Cold War? The CIA and other agencies really should have been dismantled and future intelligence handled by new agencies designed to meet the changed needs of a different era, without the history and baggage of old agencies designed for different missions in a different era. That would be the best course now, but don’t hold your breath.