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America’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Agencies
Posted on Nov 29, 2007
James Harris and Josh Scheer
Harris: And one of the things that I noticed about your book is that you say the reason for many of these failures are the cherished features of American democracy. Frequent elections, the separation of powers, majority rule, political compromise—these all constrain presidential power and give Congress little incentive to create an effective foreign policy system. Can you elaborate on that for me?
Zegart: Yeah, it’s one of the great ironies of our democratic system. What some of the things that we think are so wonderful about our democracy, the separation of powers and the congressional bicameral Congress, create a fragmented system that requires compromise to succeed. We typically think compromise is a good thing; but from the standpoint of designing an intelligence agency, it’s a terrible thing. Because what it does is it means that opponents of any reform have a say in how that reform is created. And so you’re literally allowing enemies of a new agency like the CIA, back in the 1940s, or the director of national intelligence today, you’re allowing opponents of that new agency to sabotage its creation from the outset. So one of the reasons why the CIA could not coordinate all the other agencies of intelligence of the 50 years before 9/11 was because that agency was deliberately crippled in the legislation that created it in 1947.
Harris: This is simply fascinating. Why have I never heard anything like this before?
Zegart: Because my parents haven’t sent you my last book.
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Zegart: Not many people are actually studying intelligence. In fact I took a look at the top 25 universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report to see how many of the universities were offering undergraduate courses on intelligence agencies. And the answer was just four last year. More universities on the top 25 offered courses on the history of rock ‘n’ roll than U.S. intelligence agencies. So it’s an area where you’d think there would be a lot more interest in studying, but there hasn’t been in the academic community.
Scheer: And why is that? Why don’t we care about the history, or certainly in the top 25 universities, care about the history of the intelligence community? Is it that we like rock ‘n’ roll ?
Zegart: I think with the incentives that academics have to focus on theory rather than policy relevant issues; it has to do with the difficulty of getting information. Forget classified information. It’s incredibly difficult even to get unclassified information on these topics from government agencies. It took me five years to get my hands on the documents and the interviews that I needed to be able to write this book. So it’s a real challenge. And academics don’t, in political science—these days don’t get rewarded for doing policy-related work because policy is a dirty word in academia these days.
Scheer: ... [T]he NSA and the security agencies seem not to ever let anything out. Is that secrecy? It doesn’t seem good; it doesn’t seem to allow for things to be fixed because there’s no one doing oversight, there’s no one watching the store, right? Wouldn’t it be better if some of the stuff was made public quicker and earlier so we would know what’s going on and we could help ... Congress or the executive branch ... ? Couldn’t we help them better if we knew what was going on? Or is it important to keep it secret?
Zegart: I think it’s both. I think there are certain things we have to keep secret, and I understand and appreciate that. But there’s no reason, for example, the CIA’s own 9/11 review is classified two years after it was finished except for the 19 pages that Congress required the agency to release a few weeks ago. So I understand the need for secrecy, but I think that it’s really important, not just for academics, but for the public and the Congress, to have an idea of what these agencies are doing and what the continuing problems are. Because you can’t fix problems you don’t know about.
Harris: Amy, how prepared are we to respond in catching the criminals, in your opinion, given the report you’ve just written?
Zegart: Well, I think there are two components to that question. One is, are we in a better position now to prevent the next 9/11? And I worry that the answer is not much. As a second is, are we going to do ourselves more damage in our response to the next catastrophic attack, and I worry about that response, Homeland Security part of the equation, as well. We still have things like interoperability problems between first-responders. We still don’t have good triage systems for getting, say, the Port of Los Angeles in Long Beach, where I live, the nation’s busiest port, up and running again after a catastrophic incident. We have a long, long way to go.
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