Intelligence: Backing into the Future

Ernest R May. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 3, Summer 1992.


The National Security Act of 1947 created the Central Intelligence Agency. That act and later executive orders govern what is called the intelligence community, which extends far beyond the CIA. Early in 1992 the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees, David Boren and David McCurdy (both Democrats of Oklahoma), introduced nearly identical bills designed to replace those mandates and reshape the structure of intelligence.

The Boren and McCurdy bills call for replacing the current Director of Central Intelligence with a Director of National Intelligence. This DNI would preside over four separate agencies. There would be one for each major category of collection—human intelligence, signal intelligence and imagery—and a fourth agency to produce analysis of the intelligence received. The DNI would also control most of the government’s spending for all kinds of intelligence.

Both Boren and McCurdy hope for debate. Neither proposes that his bill be enacted exactly as is. This is sensible. The 1947 charter did duty for 45 years; any new charter should also last.


The main premises and objectives of the two bills are clearly right. The world has changed; we nevertheless need secret intelligence. We also need to ask, as do both bills, whether in this changed world the intelligence community will serve “the needs of the government as a whole in an effective and timely manner.”

First, change. Both bills say that a new era is opening. The Senate version allows only that the threat from the former Soviet Union has “considerably diminished.” The House bill acknowledges the “end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

In actuality, three changes have occurred; all are potentially revolutionary. The virtual disappearance of the Soviet threat is only one. A second change is the near disappearance of any comparable threat. Before the Cold War, after all, there were the Axis powers and fascism and, earlier still, monarchism. Americans now face no menace from any foreign military power or any hostile ideology.

The third change is in warfare. Strategic intelligence has become tactical intelligence and vice versa. In the Persian Gulf War satellites that had originally been lifted to track Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles provided target data to tank commanders and pilots. Field operatives’ reports on morale among Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard meanwhile influenced presidential decisions in Washington on suspending hostilities. The odds are that in future conflicts front-line commanders will be demanding satellite imagery while White House staffers plead for intelligence information cables.

Second, continuing need. Absurd as are recently leaked Pentagon fantasies about future wars, Americans would be foolish to forget how little can be foreseen. When the U.S.S. Lexington was launched in 1927 almost no one imagined its need 15 years later, in the Coral Sea, to check Japanese conquest of the mid-Pacific. Given the revolution in warfare Americans would be doubly foolish not to ensure that, if peace fails, American battlefield commanders have eyes and ears more keen than any enemy’s.

The premises of an impending new era, however, imply other secret information needs. These include intelligence on sub-rosa flows of narcotics, weapons and associated money, perhaps cross-checks on other data about trade, the environment, migration or disease. Serving “the needs of the government as a whole” implies generating information and analysis about new subjects and for new consumers.


Certain features of the Boren and McCurdy bills, however, are at odds with these premises. Those features include provisions regarding the National Security Council, budgets, a revamped CIA and the proposed new analysis agency. These provisions of the bills look backward rather than forward.

Provisions of the bills referring to the NSC assume the intelligence community will serve the same consumers as in the Cold War. The community would not only remain under the NSC; it would look to an NSC subcommittee for “overall policy direction” and determination of “overall resource needs.” These provisions suppose that the NSC will remain the paramount policy forum for the president. That may prove untrue.

The NSC is in some respects an anachronism. It was established in 1947 to satisfy a demand of the military services for a voice in diplomacy. Arguing that the State Department ignored the costs of diplomatic commitments, the armed services had begged since 1919 for a consultative committee like the British Committee of Imperial Defense. In the 1950s, when arms competition came to dominate the Cold War, roles reversed. The State Department sought a voice in defense policy. The NSC provided a forum. Presidents meanwhile found the NSC increasingly convenient for guiding both Defense and State. Under Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the NSC became a superdepartment. For more than a decade, however, the organization has not been what it then was. If the national agenda changes, the NSC may cease even to be primus inter pares of White House staffs.

The NSC has not dealt well in the past with nontraditional issues. In the early 1980s default on debts by foreign governments was one of the greatest threats to U.S. national security. Outstanding loans, chiefly to Mexico and Brazil, equalled over 200 percent of the capital of America’s nine largest banks. Insiders at the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board feared a financial collapse worse than 1929.

The NSC’s senior director of economic affairs tried to get a warning before the president. CIA analysts helped him build a case. But it took more than two years to place the matter on the NSC agenda. By that time, luckily, the danger had lessened. Neither the Treasury nor the Federal Reserve had seen the NSC as a natural venue for a problem in their domains, and neither agency had or has a comfortable relationship with the intelligence community. They succeeded in keeping their worries to themselves.

The NSC has since shown no sign of becoming better able to seize economic issues. The unhappy history of President Bush’s January 1992 trip to Japan is evidence. Staff work even approaching that on Cold War political-military issues would surely have forestalled the president’s appearing as a tour guide for corporate campaign contributors. Nor does the NSC show any ability to plan a “war on drugs” or prepare for international negotiations about the environment.

In the future the NSC may handle traditional political-military issues. Other staff groups parallel in stature may handle other matters. In that event the head of the intelligence community would carry a disability if defined by statute as “intelligence adviser to the National Security Council.” He would be even worse off if beholden to an NSC subcommittee for guidance on policy and resource allocation. It would be better if new legislation separated the intelligence community from the NSC. The most that is needed is statutory provision for a “principal intelligence officer for the president.”


The second backward-looking element in the proposed bills concerns the intelligence budget. The Director of Central Intelligence was originally expected to coordinate spending, but no DCI has actually ever done so. Signal intelligence remained with the Department of Defense in what became the National Security Agency. As satellites and other high-cost collection systems came on line, the Defense Department managed them as well. One-time DCI Richard Helms once estimated that the secretary of defense controlled 85 percent of all intelligence spending.

The Boren and McCurdy bills would put the whole intelligence budget under the new DNI. The secretary of defense would become “responsible for ensuring that the policies and resource decisions of the director of national intelligence are implemented by elements of the Department of Defense.”

At the beginning of the missile and satellite era such a policy might have been wise. In a period of spending cutbacks the contrary may be true. Collection systems would fare less well as big items in a small intelligence budget than as small items in a big defense budget.

An intelligence tsar could find himself in the situation of the old Atomic Energy Commission. Congress gave that agency all responsibility for nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion; the armed services could thus make demands on it without counting the costs. The AEC became little more than a caterer. An intelligence tsar could likewise end up spending money mostly to satisfy requests from the Pentagon. Either way, the nation could lose. There could be too few systems to satisfy battlefield commanders. Or there could be plenty of systems but little capacity to make sense of what they collect.

Experience in the Gulf War suggests that the military establishment should retain collection systems with tactical military uses. If intelligence analysts deal increasingly with nonmilitary issues, they may have less use for signal intercepts or imagery. The president’s principal intelligence officer may need only the power to ask from Defense what his analysts wish to hear or see.

The third backward-looking element in the pending bills concerns the CIA. The agency would evolve into what is now its dubious image: an organization for spies and “dirty tricks.” The large components of the CIA that do analysis would move elsewhere. All that would remain would be the clandestine service and a small staff to coordinate other human intelligence resources (such as embassy attaches).

At the height of the Cold War this change, too, might have made sense. When Congress studied the CIA in the mid-1970s it saw an agency dominated by operators. Allen Dulles, director through most of the 1950s, had been called “the Great White Case Officer.” The career men who later headed CIA, Helms and William Colby, came from the clandestine service. While analysis was not distorted, it was sometimes muffled or mischanneled. In 1961 the CIA’s analysts knew that Fidel Castro was popular in Cuba. They got no chance to report this until after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. During the Vietnam War analysts poured out reports on potential military targets. Few studied the politics that might affect decisions in Hanoi. In those years independence for the CIA’s analytic directorates might have given them greater status and voice.

But the 1990s are not the 1970s. In fact the 1980s were not the 1970s. The Iran-contra affair was probably the last heave of a slain dragon. Within the CIA, by all accounts, the directorate of intelligence more than pulled abreast of the directorate of operations. Centers that focused on terrorism and counter-narcotics made analysts and operators into colleagues. As director, William Webster put analysts in key managerial posts, and his successor, Robert Gates, himself comes from the analytical side of the agency. There is every sign that Gates will continue to make analysis—the use of intelligence—the agency’s controlling mission.

Today the relevant question is different. What becomes of the operators if they are cut adrift from analysts? Absent the preoccupying task of combating communists, how does one choose collection targets? In the CIA prefigured in the Senate and House bills the clandestine service would get nearly all guidance from the very top. That is not enough. Knowledge of the analytical issues before decision-makers needs to influence human intelligence collection at every level, from the stations on up.

This is not to argue for leaving the CIA just as it is. Both its operators and analysts come from cultures conditioned by the Cold War. The former think of penetrating police states and coping with conspiracies; the latter think of piecing together rare facts, like archaeologists. Neither group may successfully adapt to a world more like that of a Washington news reporter, challenged not to find information but to avoid being inundated by it.

In business corporations, attempts to change cultures usually fail. They may fail in the CIA. It may prove better to create a new clandestine service and a new corps of analysts, bringing in veterans only as and if they meet newly defined needs. The Cold War CIA took shape in that fashion, for Harry Truman had shut down its predecessor, the World War II Office of Strategic Services. Though new managers took in some OSS hands, they picked and chose. Even in radical reculturing, however, operators and analysts ought to be kept together.


The fourth feature of the bills that is at odds with their own premises is the grouping of most analysts now in the CIA, NSA and elsewhere into a new autonomous Directorate for Estimates and Analysis. While this proposal looks more forward than back, it focuses on too short a distance in the future.

The general goal of the Boren and McCurdy bills is to organize intelligence for a new era. The goals served by bunching analysts in one agency are symmetry and economy. A box for analysis on the same plane as boxes for human and signal intelligence and imagery will make for a neater organization chart. Consolidation could save a few dollars; the CIA and other elements of the community have overlapping analytic offices.

Here, however, a backward look ought to warn against such a change. For any example of wasteful duplication, a counterexample shows the value of competition. The CIA deflated military intelligence estimates of a “bomber gap” in the 1950s. In 1973 NSA analysts noticed signs of an approaching Middle East war that analysts in other agencies ignored. The “Team B” exercise of the mid-1970s found estimates of Soviet missile programs by the Defense Intelligence Agency to be better than any others.

An example nearer the new agenda is the misgauging of the Soviet economy. From the 1950s onward CIA economists described the Soviet economy as comparatively robust. They had all the available data, and they worked from a complex input-output model. Their periodic reports, published with the imprimatur of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, acquired the status of scripture.

Emigres’ tales did not jibe with these reports. They said, for example, that economists overestimated Soviet production of television sets. While the numbers might be accurate, they left out large numbers of sets that blew up and caused fires. Emigres also said that the CIA had misjudged Soviet agricultural output. Economists counted potatoes harvested but not the quantities that ended up as rotting landfill. Since economists could not fit such anecdotal data into their models, they mentioned them in fine-print footnotes on “externalities.”

Late in the Gorbachev era outside analysts challenged CIA estimates. Then the Soviet Union collapsed. The whole world saw its hollowness. Competition among analysts—including competition from noneconomists—might have made the revelation less astonishing.

While competition does cost money, it does not cost much. As CIA veteran George Carver said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing, the entire community-wide budget for analysis could be covered by mere rounding off in the defense budget. Analysts can help collectors get the most out of their expensive hardware. Electronic eavesdroppers and overhead picture-takers need guidance just as much as do case officers. If a key aim is closer integration of intelligence and policy, the case is also strong for scattering analysts of intelligence in among the users.

To argue that all analysts should not be segregated is not to oppose the bills’ proposal for a quasi-independent National Intelligence Council. That could be a useful body. Boren and McCurdy propose pulling analysts out of the CIA partly because they think that many of America’s best and brightest may be averse to working in an organization that also handles spies and covert operations. Most of that concern comes from memories of bygone times; nowadays CIA recruiters generally find a welcome on college campuses. The concern is not entirely baseless, however, and a wholly separate National Intelligence Council might indeed attract analysts whose image of the CIA is still influenced by “Missing” or “Three Days of the Condor.” Such a council could also be an easier home for analysts on leave from universities or laboratories, especially if it required no polygraph tests.

To be most useful, a small new National Intelligence Council should be different from the existing council in at least three respects.

First, a new analytic agency should use a wider range of talent. The existing council is organized to emphasize political-military analysis. Its prize product in the past was its annual estimate of Soviet strategic forces. In the future such expertise will still be in demand, but less so. For analysis and estimates the council will need more men and women familiar with matters such as banking, immigration, disease, climate and police procedure.

Second, a new council should scan more widely. For new issues much information is in open sources. Much analysis is done outside the government. Future intelligence officers will more often have to specify the increment in understanding that secret intelligence provides. Decision-makers will want to be told tersely and exactly what is not in The New York Times or on Cable News Network.

Third, and most important, a revamped council should have continuous communication with intelligence users. That probably entails including among its staff analysts who head liaison offices such as those in Treasury, Commerce and the Office of the Special Trade Representative. That would be only a partial step; some liaison offices are little more than mail boxes. Few have even the fitful access to the policy process of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Nonetheless those intelligence officers who regularly see top decision-makers should get some sense of what is on their minds or, at least, on their calendars.

A complementary step would place intelligence officers on decision-makers’ staffs. The new national agenda calls for imaginative policy planning, such as that of the 1940-41 Rainbow planners or George Kennan and Paul Nitze in the early Cold War State Department. This time intelligence ought to help. There need not be repetition of mistakes, such as first underestimating the Japanese, then overestimating the Russians.

Yet another link could run through think tanks. A model is the Rand Corporation of the 1950s. While analysts in its strategic studies wing did classified research, few had access to intelligence data. Those that did tactfully steered their colleagues so that Rand reports implicitly took account of, for example, U-2 photography of the Soviet Union and intercepts from tapped telephones in East Berlin. Those specially cleared analysts also carried questions back to the intelligence community. That could happen in the future in, for example, panels of the National Bureau of Economic Research or committees of the National Institutes of Health.

The head of the intelligence community must also identify needs that decision-makers do not see. He has to do the equivalent of launching the Lexington. But he must have many lines reaching into operating elements of the executive branch and Congress if, in either the short or long run, the intelligence community is to meet “the needs of the government as a whole in an effective and timely manner.”


New legislation for the intelligence community should equip it for the future. It should provide for a principal intelligence officer not necessarily linked to the NSC. While it might create a National Imagery Agency as a counterpart to NSA, it need not move either agency out of the Defense Department. In no circumstances should Congress strip the collecting agencies of their analysts. In fact analytical staffs should probably increase. The more attention paid to reasons for collection, the more the nation is apt to get its money’s worth from high-cost hardware. A new analytical agency, if any, should serve the mission of making intelligence maximally useful for policy.

New legislation may be needed for subjects not touched by the current bills. The boundary between foreign and domestic intelligence is one example. Because of the march of technology, threats to privacy constantly increase. Limitations that worked when the major threat came from communists in Moscow may not work, however, when the enemies are moving drugs or migrant workers or hot money or are themselves viruses or ultraviolet rays.

Other equally difficult subjects include classification, clearance and dissemination. In the past secrecy has limited the usefulness of intelligence. Flag and general officers routinely complain of not even knowing what they could have been told. If the operational uses of intelligence expand, the problem will change in kind, not just degree. If the ultimate actors are local law enforcement officials or bankers or businessmen or doctors or scientists not even in government employ (perhaps not even U.S. nationals), effective dissemination is going to require new rules. That may mean new statutes.

Most of what is needed, however, does not call for legislation. The president and others in the executive branch have to establish processes to cope with the new challenges. Congressionally mandated organizational changes could make this harder, not easier. The intelligence oversight committees can give most help by prodding the executive to prepare for the future instead of just conserving what was built up in the past. To do that the committees themselves need to keep their eyes on the horizons. Judging from the current bills, they are still backing into the future.