According to a front-page story in the Washington Post today, the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board issued a report recently that argued the intelligence community had become too focused on supporting the war efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against al Qaeda at the expense of tracking what was going on in such places as China and North Africa. Members of the Board are quoted as saying that the traditional espionage job of the CIA and other intelligence agencies has suffered as a result.
Now, because the work of the intelligence community is classified and the report is also classified, it’s impossible to tell from the outside whether the report is being reported accurately and/or the report itself is a fair criticism of the community. (A disclaimer: I was once the executive director of PFIAB during Ronald Reagan’s second term and am well aware that not all newspaper accounts of the board’s work were accurate when a report like this was leaked.)
However, just going by the newspaper account, one is struck by the seemingly easy dismissal of the fact that the United States has been, and still is, at war. But, then again, this is a board whose former co-chair when the report was finalized was Chuck Hagel who, like the administration itself, has made it perfectly clear that getting out of these wars is a priority.
It’s also no small irony that Lee Hamilton, the former congressman from Indiana and current member of PFIAB is quoted as saying that traditional espionage “has suffered” as a result of the intelligence community’s focus on the wars and counterterrorism. But it was Hamilton’s 9/11 Commission that made it clear the intelligence community, and the CIA in particular, had been catastrophically remiss in not paying sufficient attention to bin Laden and al Qaeda before that attack. The fact that CIA’s Counterterrorism Center has grown, as the Post reports, from about 300 employees before 9/11 to 2,000 today is not necessarily a sign of a misappropriation of resources if one believes that 300 was wildly insufficient at the time. It could be but it’s not prima facie so.
Nor does it mean that resources redirected will necessarily produce more and better intelligence on, for example, China. That, from my experience, is more a question of the quality of the effort than bodies thrown at it.
When asked to comment about the PFIAB report, board co-chair and former chairman of the Senate intelligence committee David Boren asks “in the long run, what’s more important to America: Afghanistan or China?” Well, the answer of course is that both are important, and both will be important, whether we like it or not, for some time. If the Board truly thinks what the intelligence the community is producing in these other areas is not up to snuff, then the question they ought to be asking is why the CIA and the intelligence community can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.