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Congress should be patient when reforming security

Freedom Editorial

So we now have another proposal for reforming the sprawling 15-agency “intelligence community” that missed the signs that 9/11 was in the works and didn’t exactly get it right about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

It’s a welcome addition to the ongoing debate, but the very extensiveness of the proposal, coming on the heels of a somewhat different proposal from the 9/11 Commission, underlines the importance of taking it slow and trying to get the organization, the policies, authority and the job descriptions right this time.

Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, would break the CIA into three new agencies, take the National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency out of the Department of Defense, and give a newly created national intelligence director (as the senator’s Web site puts it) “complete budgetary and personnel authority, including hire and fire authority, and direct control over the national intelligence agencies currently residing in the Department of Defense.”

This is an undoubtedly sincere and useful addition to the reform mix. But as Newport Beach, Calif., Rep. Chris Cox pointed out, if Congress tries to reform U.S. intelligence before the election, which news reports suggest is the current intention, “we’re almost certain to get it wrong.”

For various reasons, some of which Rep. Cox would probably endorse and some of which he might well criticize, we agree.

For starters, despite reports from the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee, the true extent of the shortcomings and problems at the CIA and other intelligence agencies is still far from certain. Both those reports put most of the blame for intelligence failures on the CIA. But there’s a school of thought that the administration was putting pressure on the CIA to come up with intelligence to justify war with Iraq, and it is far too early to dismiss this hypothesis.

It is also far from clear that centralizing the intelligence function in the office of one person directly responsible to the president is the best way to get solid, independent information.

The most important quality an intelligence director needs is the ability to tell the president, when necessary, “You’re wrong. The facts don’t bear out your preferred course of action.”

Ultimately that depends on the courage and character of the director, but a highly centralized agency could be more likely, not less, to encourage the “groupthink” the 9/11 Commission criticized. He or she also needs the ability borne of experience and instinct that can analyze, assess and properly weigh the data received.

Finally, as Charles Pena, director of defense studies at the Cato Institute, said, even deeper rethinking might be needed.

“Perhaps we should just get rid of some of those 15 agencies or consolidate some of their functions,” he said. A major problem seems to be not lack of information but lack of sharing across cumbersome government bureaucracies. Cutting back to a leaner, more focused intelligence community might be more useful than adding layers of bureaucracy and increasing budgets.

For all these and other reasons, the proposals from the 9/11 Commission and Sen. Roberts should be just the beginning of the discussion, not something Congress should rush to paste together and enact.