Dumb Intelligence

The Washington Post throws some much-needed cold water on the intelligence reform bill that recently passed the House and appears well on its way to becoming law. The problem with the intelligence reform bill is that it doesn’t actually reform intelligence. It creates a nice public position for a National Intelligence Director while doing little to fix the actual problem — our over-reliance on ELINT over HUMINT — in short, we’re too dependent on machines to take the place of old-fashioned spycraft.

As the Post notes, this kind of bureaucratic shuffling is a way of Congress to seem proactive without actually getting into the meat of the situation. The intelligence bill doesn’t actually reform our spycraft, it doesn’t lift the restrictions that hamper the intelligence community from developing sources in terrorist groups, and as Congressman James Sensenbrenner notes it doesn’t secure America’s borders to prevent terrorism.

The problem with government is that it’s much easier to create the perception of acting rather than taking action. That’s all that the new intelligence bill does — create the perception that our intelligence community is being fixed. The actual problems aren’t with the leadership of the intelligence community, although that does play a part. The problem is that our intelligence systems do not have the ability to penetrate terrorist cells and enemy government and provide the kind of information that can’t be picked up from a satellite photo or an electronic intercept. We had no one in al-Qaeda who could have tipped us off about September 11. We had no one in Iraq who could have reported to us on the true extent of Saddam’s WMD programs. Our intelligence on Iran is sketchy at best, and we’re forced to work with various dissident groups who may or may not have their own agendas.

We need to develop better human intelligence sources. The only ones who are doing this are in the Department of Defense — it was good old-fashioned HUMINT that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein and when Osama bin Laden is captured it won’t be because of satellite photos or electronic intercepts, it will be because someone on the ground spilled the beans. We have the most advanced technology in the world, but all that technology is still no replacement for the Mark I human brain. Until our intelligence services are reformed from the bottom up rather than the top down, the changes instituted by the intelligence reform bill will be nothing more than window dressing.

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