Why can't Uncle Sam spy?

The problem is red tape, turf battles and no spies on the ground, say experts.

By Anthony York

Published September 18, 2001 7:05PM (EDT)

What's wrong with American intelligence? Not surprisingly, it's a question that is being asked everywhere in the wake of last Tuesday's horrific terrorist attacks.

There is no simple answer, say former law enforcement officials and experts in intelligence. But they point to three things: excessive bureaucratic oversight, which ties intelligence agencies' hands and prevents them from responding quickly; an over-reliance on high-tech surveillance and a corresponding failure to develop on-the-ground operations; and poor coordination, both between the FBI and the CIA and between those agencies and their foreign counterparts.

Efforts to address the first problem -- cutting through the bureaucracy that tangles intelligence operations -- have already begun. Law enforcement officials, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, are asking Congress to give the intelligence community more leeway in both international and domestic surveillance.

But the call to give more authority to intelligence operations has alarmed civil libertarians, who fear that America's latest crisis will, like so many crises before it, erode liberties guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits "unreasonable" search and seizure.

"Terror, by its very nature, is intended not only to kill and destroy," says Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU. "Terror is also designed to intimidate a people and force them to take actions that may not be in their long-term best interests. If we allow our freedoms to be undermined, the terrorists will have won."

There is an inherent tension between a constitutional system that strives to protect civil liberties, and one that also must work clandestinely to protect its citizens. But American intelligence agencies exacerbated this tension, and brought many of their current problems on themselves, by illegally spying on American citizens.

These activities were first revealed in December 1974, when New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh reported how the CIA violated its own charter by spying on antiwar protesters and others on the left during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Similar revelations about the COINTELPRO operation at the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover led to even widespread mistrust of our intelligence agencies.

Within days of Hersh's story, President Gerald Ford appointed a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to look into the allegations. That was soon followed by two congressional committees, one headed by Idaho Democrat Frank Church, the other by Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y. In the months that followed, the Pike and Church committees shone the spotlight on an intelligence operation run amok with nobody to keep it in check.

Until the Church and Pike committees called for reform, there was no congressional oversight of American intelligence agencies. Pike and Church's investigations led to a series of reforms and legislative checks on those agencies, including the creation of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Even ex-spooks acknowledge that America's intelligence agencies were out of control. "These were by and large problems of our own making," says Daniel Coulson, a former FBI commander who founded the bureau's counter-terrorism squad. "We did some things that were absolutely ridiculous, and because of that a tremendous cloud of suspicion grew over the FBI. Even now, I think that's part of the problem. People are concerned with how much authority you should give to the bureau."

But Coulson and others in the intelligence community say the reforms spawned by Church and Pike, while well-intentioned, were clumsy, bureaucratic and overly restrictive. And they say that Congress doesn't give intelligence agencies enough credit for how much they have changed since the mid-1970s.

"The bureau has changed the way they do business, in part because there is tremendous oversight," he says. "But I think that Congress doesn't fully appreciate the fact that the bureau did change."

One of the big changes to come out of the investigations of the mid-'70s was instituting a Department of Justice review of the legality of any FBI request to conduct surveillance. That, Coulson said, has created a labyrinth of bureaucracy, and has left the agency unable to keep up with terrorists and criminal organizations.

"You don't want to take the Constitution out of the process, but you can take the administrative burden out of the process," Coulson says. "Just take the B.S. out of it. You have a head of the bureau who is appointed by the president, and confirmed by the Senate. Then you emasculate him by putting a level of bureaucracy in with the Department of Justice. I'm not saying the FBI should divorce itself from the Department of Justice. But if you have a presidential appointee making these requests, I don't think you should subject his judgment to scrutiny from a low- or mid-level DOJ attorney who doesn't understand intelligence. Agents need to be cut loose to do their thing."

In fact, the bureaucratic shackles on intelligence agencies were significantly loosened just a few years ago. After the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Congress quickly approved a measure known as the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995. That bill addressed many of the same concerns the FBI and CIA are raising now. It granted much broader wiretapping authority for law enforcement with less judicial oversight and access to personal and financial records without a warrant. The bill also gave the president more leeway to designate groups as official terrorist organizations, in effect enabling the government to seize the assets of those groups and their supporters.

But Coulson and other critics think there's still too much structural bureaucracy.

In a press conference Monday, Attorney General Ashcroft called for further latitude, asking for even more wiretap authority and stiffer penalties for nations that harbor terrorists. "We need these tools to fight the terrorism threat which exists in the United States and we must meet that growing threat," he said.

Craig Eisendrath, a senior fellow at CIP and editor of the book "National Insecurity: U.S. Intelligence After the Cold War," doesn't buy the argument that reforms have hampered the CIA and the FBI. The '70s reforms "have not inhibited the intelligence community one whit," he says.

"If we're going to increase the CIA and FBI's ability to spy," he adds, "we also should take another look at the legal procedures by which Americans can protect themselves against unauthorized restrictions of free speech and movement."

Robert White, president of the Center for International Policy and former ambassador to El Salvador under President Carter, agrees with Coulson that intelligence efforts have been bogged down by red tape. "It has become a huge, layered bureaucracy. It's much worse than any other civilian agency," he says. "It's impossible to get a fast response or fast action out of that of bureaucracy."

That, he says, should be a justification to reassess and perhaps even cut intelligence budgets, rather than just throw more money at an agency in need of structural reform.

"It seems to me that what you need is a small agency with a few highly skilled people that can go and get the assets that they need. I have just seen time and again the failures of our efforts. I was in Afghanistan in the late '80s; I talked to our chargé there. We didn't have any assets there."

But bureaucracy isn't the only problem facing U.S. intelligence. Eisendrath puts the blame for the poor quality of U.S. intelligence in recent years on the spies themselves.

"What needs to be improved is the quality of the personnel," he says. "A lot of people don't have adequate area skills. Our human intelligence is not working well. We're not giving our people the kind of training they need to do good jobs."

One of the places where the agencies are weakest is in infiltration of terrorist organizations. Neither the CIA nor the FBI has shown the ability to put operatives in the field to do this slow, dirty and dangerous work. A sign of just how dire the situation is came Monday, when Mueller publicly stumped for new FBI recruits, saying the agency needs people with a "professional level in Arabic and Farsi."

Coulson says much of the blame for poor intelligence gathering can be laid at the feet of the Carter administration, which focused on technology as a substitute for agents on the ground. "This really started with Stansfield Turner," Coulson says of Carter's CIA chief. "He bounced and went almost exclusively with NSA intercepts and satellite photos. We knew it was a mistake then. It's been a mistake forever. It's absolute insanity. But, a guy gets appointed as the head of the CIA with a huge ego and not a lot of experience, and that's what happens.

"That totally changed the face of the CIA," Coulson says of the focus on technology. "Years of building up contacts and goodwill and rapport were just flushed down the drain. That takes decades to recover from."

Organization and turf are other significant problems, experts agree. Coulson says there must be a diminution of the interagency rivalry between the FBI and CIA, and more multi-lateral cooperation. "I think there has to be more cooperation. Maybe we have to offer other countries some incentives to cooperate with us. They are natives and native speakers. We need them to get good information. We're not going to solve this through technology. We're going to solve it by people telling us what happened, and where these people are hiding."

While White agrees, he says now would be an ideal time to overhaul the entire structure of our domestic and international intelligence networks. "The CIA has failed to adjust to the post-Cold War era," he says. "We have an oversupply in CIA officials mucking around in Latin America and Western Europe and Africa and Australia, and nobody concentrating on the hard targets."

Some of the concerns expressed by Coulter will be addressed on Thursday, when Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, is expected to introduce a package of intelligence reforms. One of the aims of the new measures will be to centralize all intelligence information under a single intelligence coordinator, to be based in the White House. Currently, eight of the 13 agencies that gather intelligence report directly to the secretary of defense, instead of the director of the CIA.

As America's intelligence agencies take center stage in the battle to ensure national security, Coulson says civil libertarians must moderate their shrill demands for privacy -- demands which he says often fly in the face of reason.

"It's a built-in resistance to giving the FBI more authority, that comes from private interest groups or civil libertarians who don't understand it," Coulson says. He points to certain policy changes that would enable law enforcement agencies to keep up with modern technology -- such as the rise of digital and cellular phones -- without compromising civil rights.

For example, he says, the way the rules work now, agents must receive a new warrant every time they want to tap a given phone line. But with the rise in cellular phones, criminals can change numbers often. In their effort to keep up, Coulson says, law enforcement wastes precious time requesting new warrants, a problem that could be solved if they were given permission to listen in on individuals rather than one specific phone number.

"Congress thinks we're asking for increased authority to go out and tap everybody's phone. That's not it at all. You'd still have to get a warrant and all that. We just want the technical ability to keep up. This should have been done 5-6 years ago."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Cia Espionage Fbi Homeland Security