Reform Overdue for Central Intelligence; CIA Bosses Claim They Are Trying to Shake Things Up, but the Agency Remains Reluctant to Admit the Significance of Its Failures or Accept That Major Reforms Are Needed

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Byline: Jamie Dettmer, INSIGHT

George Tenet has been on the offensive all winter, defending the CIA's recent record as more details emerge of his agency's failures from overstating Saddam Hussein's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs to not fully appreciating the extent of the work undertaken by Libya and Iran to develop nuclear weapons. In speeches and in congressional testimony, the U.S. Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) has sought cautiously to shift blame elsewhere, suggesting that high administration officials may have ignored equivocations in intelligence reports concerning Iraq and elected to highlight worst-case scenarios. The New York Times' interpretation of Tenet's testimony, quickly denied in official circles, is that at least three times he had to advise Vice President Dick Cheney to restrain himself when making the public case for war against Saddam and urged him to soften his claims about the immediacy of an Iraqi threat.

Tenet hardly has shifted his ground since the terror attacks struck New York City and Washington on 9/11. In the wake of the attacks he insisted, "Failure means no focus, no attention, no discipline and those were not present in what either we or the FBI did here and around the world." Subsequently, he has admitted to a mistake here or there, and he has acknowledged that CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., needs to improve its skills when "connecting the dots." But he still won't concede that Sept. 11 represented a massive failure on the part of the agency he heads.

Despite Tenet's spirited defense, grave questions remain about the CIA, its recent performance and what is to be done to improve it. A report due soon by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on 9/11 intelligence failures, currently undergoing a final edit, reportedly delivers a devastating verdict on the CIA performance. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said of the report: "It's shocking," and added, "There has to be accountability."

The report is bound to fuel calls for reform and to intensify the Washington debate about reform. For critics outside Langley it is difficult to get a full picture of the CIA, as intelligence successes have to remain cloaked, whereas dramatic failures stumble into the public light, often as a result of efforts by the stumblers to avoid blame. Even so, while Tenet remains a stout defender of his agency, there is a growing consensus in Washington that reform is necessary, although there is often little agreement about what reforms are needed or the scale of the change that may be required.

Most lawmakers and intelligence insiders accept that the CIA has to do a better job of collecting intelligence and analyzing the information that is gathered. But many larger institutional questions remain unresolved, such as how to achieve greater coordination between U.S. intelligence agencies and whether there should be a unification of national-level collection and analytic agencies under the CIA director to give him maximum control of the whole intelligence apparatus a move that would be fought tooth-and-nail by the Pentagon, which commands the lion's share of the intelligence budget.

And it isn't clear that Congress is capable of biting the reform bullet. Though there have been angry exchanges in recent months between the congressional panels most notably last September over a report by the chief investigator for the House and Senate Joint Inquiry Committee on the Sept. 11 attacks accusing agency officials of withholding vital information from committee staff the panels are reluctant to take on the intelligence community. Former and current CIA officials say that, on the whole, the panels traditionally are supine, don't ask enough questions about ongoing everyday matters and give the agency the benefit of the doubt.

And the panels are fearful of rocking the boat when it comes to major reform. Many lawmakers who serve on the oversight panels enjoy a cozy relationship with the community and are loath to risk endangering their good ties. …