Reviewed by T. C. Wales (Department of History, University of Edinburgh)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2003)
Marching Orders: General William Odom Takes On the U.S. Intelligence Community
Marching Orders: General William Odom Takes On the U.S. Intelligence Community
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington there was a strong consensus among American politicians, academics, and pundits that something was seriously wrong with the U.S. intelligence system. Richard C. Shelby (R-Alabama), Vice-Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that "our inability to detect and prevent the ... attacks was ... a failure of unprecedented magnitude" and placed the notion of serious reform back on the national legislative agenda. Over time, however, this vitally important issue has slipped back into obscurity, subsumed by the omnipresent military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and continued wrangling over the authority of the new Department of Homeland Security. This cycle--disaster, calls for reform, and inevitable return to inertia--is depressingly familiar to intelligence historians. The Church Committee, which investigated the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) involvement in various unsavory activities in 1975, and the Boren Commission, established more than a decade later to probe the Iran-Contra affair, both failed to precipitate fundamental change. With the entrenched Congressional backing of a tenured bureaucracy, the American intelligence community has sometimes seemed as lawless and invulnerable as John Gotti, the late "Teflon Don" of the New York underworld.
This sorry state of affairs explains, in part, why William E. Odom's clarion call for reform, Fixing Intelligence: For a More Secure America, is so important. The author, a retired three-star U.S. Army General and former Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), is a consummate insider. While Odom's status blinkers his outlook in certain respects and leaves him prone to some of NSA's institutional biases, in the end it is what makes his book so remarkable. For Fixing Intelligence is a wholesale attack on the U.S. intelligence community. It alleges that the current system is dangerously dysfunctional due to serious management problems, and proposes a radical restructuring. In short, Odom's book is the first wholesale attempt to centralize and reengineer the American clandestine services since their modern conception at the hands of William Donovan and Sir William Stephenson sixty-two years ago.
Odom's first task is to explain why the existing system does not work, which he accomplishes with distressing ease. After briefly outlining some of its most notorious recent failures--the Ames/Hansson mole debacles, General Norman Schwarzkopf's complaints about the lack of timely intelligence during the First Gulf War, the September 11 disaster, and the CIA's misadventures in Afghanistan--he shows how poor management and agency parochialism were contributing factors in each case. For most readers, however, Odom's chart detailing the cat's cradle of overlapping lines of authority between the sundry agencies that comprise the "community" will be sufficient evidence that something is seriously amiss (p. 197). In a society that sees itself as a model of free-market efficiency, America's intelligence apparatus is disappointingly bureaucratic--even Soviet. Odom's main concern, however, is more specific: this maze of staid government apparatchiks makes it impossible for the United States to perform "corrective feedback" from "performance to resource allocation" (pp. 12-14). In other words, the President and Congress have no way to determine what works, and what does not. In a world where Al-Qaeda exists, this is a recipe for disaster.
The solution, in Odom's view, is to radically restructure and simplify the system. As a former military man he likes the idea of a clear chain-of-command where the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) serves as the unquestioned leader. In place of the present witch's brew of agencies with overlapping authority, he proposes establishing a quartet of National Intelligence Authorities (NIAs) with clearly delineated areas of responsibility: signals intelligence, human intelligence, satellite imaging, and counterintelligence. The DCI would have direct responsibility for each NIA's performance and budget. Until now the DCI has enjoyed only nominal authority outside the precincts of the CIA. Odom's plan would invest the office with real statutory power over the entire U.S. clandestine world. Moreover, the NIA system would not be just another layer of bureaucracy larded atop the present intelligence community--the new structure would replace it entirely.
This wholesale reorganization, which would eviscerate or completely eliminate several major agencies, is what separates Odom's plan from those of his reform-minded contemporaries. The latter group--from President Bush to former CIA officer-turned-author Robert Baer--emphasizes legal and administrative changes that might make the system work better. These uninspired proposals run the gamut from improving interagency liaison to "turning loose" the CIA (i.e., eliminating the legal bans on assassinating foreign leaders and recruiting agents with criminal backgrounds). Odom maintains that such incremental steps have been tried before without success. Therefore, he believes the CIA should be broken up to accommodate the new NIA-based structure, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) must cede its domestic counterintelligence function, and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) must answer to the new DCI. Freed from his impossible dual role as both CIA chief and ostensible head of the entire intelligence community, Odom's super-DCI could serve as unchallenged chief executive of the new system.
In ordinary times the prospects for radical reform along the lines proposed by General Odom would be bleak. But these are not ordinary times, and two new factors offer fresh hope for change. First, the sheer scale of the September 11 atrocity and the intelligence failure it represents will eventually demand a comprehensive accounting. Second, the lapses of certain agencies were so egregious that maintaining the status quo is unacceptable: a fact that is recognized by all concerned parties, including the culpable organizations.
This is particularly true at the FBI, where poor communication between its Washington headquarters and bureaus in Phoenix and Minneapolis may have given Al-Qaeda a fatal chance. Informed observers of the clandestine world have long understood that the FBI's statutory responsibilities constitute a dangerous anomaly: counterintelligence and law enforcement demand radically different approaches. Effective counterintelligence requires the patient detection, observation, and penetration of enemy cells. Public attention of any kind is most undesirable. Yet the FBI has always measured success according to the public acclaim that follows high-profile law-enforcement actions: namely arrests, indictments, and prosecutions. Odom argues that, consequently, the FBI's counterintelligence record has been deplorable (p. 172); his proposal for an autonomous national authority in this area (subordinate to the DCI) would effectively expel the bureau from the guild of spies. Recently, a group of retired intelligence officers published an essay in The Economist that echoed Odom's criticism of the FBI approach to counterintelligence. The co-authors, who include two former high-ranking FBI officials, demand that, if a serious attempt to change the counterintelligence culture is not forthcoming, "it should be made clear to both the FBI and the American public that the president will separate this responsibility from the bureau."
There has also been an unprecedented amount of public soul-searching at the CIA. Odom maintains that like the FBI, there is an entrenched culture at the Agency that inhibits its effectiveness. In this case he points the finger at the "con-artist" persona rife among the career civil servants at Langley. While such skills may be necessary--even desirable--in covert operations, they have created a tendency to over-hype the Agency's successes and practice bureaucratic empire building through Congressional appropriations (p. 152). This is far from a new observation, but that does not make Odom's critique any less telling. Indeed, the CIA's propensity to favor big, flamboyant special operations projects over "classic spy-running" (of the type that might have uncovered the September 11 plot) is traceable to Donovan's sometimes inspired, frequently disorganized approach during World War II. Allan Dulles, the CIA's legendary DCI during the 1950s, once told his then-protege Richard Helms that quiet, traditional human intelligence work would never command respect in Congress because "it doesn't cost very much." Even within the Agency, in the post-September 11 environment that attitude is seen as a dangerous relic of the past. Odom's plan to insulate the DCI from such antediluvian impulses would help promote cultural change at the CIA.
To capitalize on the new reformist sentiment emanating from within the intelligence community, U.S. policymakers need a comprehensive, unbiased assessment of what is wrong and how to fix it. The author's occasional bouts of institutional favoritism are therefore unfortunate, and constitute the only serious flaws in an otherwise superb book. While many of the policy prescriptions in Fixing Intelligence are inspired, and Odom does an excellent job puncturing the self-generated mystique surrounding the FBI and CIA, his critical analysis of the Defense intelligence agencies--including NSA--is much less trenchant.
Some of these problems are not due to any direct bias on Odom's part, per se, and are simply attributable to a mistaken view of intelligence history. For instance, Odom denigrates the performance of the ex-military personnel and contract agents that the CIA uses in covert operations, and claims, justifiably, that uniformed U.S. military Special Forces would be much more effective. The problem is that as long as American policymakers choose to make secret peacetime interventions abroad, using uniformed Special Forces is impossible. American presidents have always endeavored to maintain the appearance of "plausible deniability"; no one in the U.S. government would want to employ regular service personnel in these situations. Blaming the CIA for every debacle created by peacetime covert operations is hardly constructive, or fair.
Odom's kid-glove treatment of NSA is both understandable and regrettable. The NSA is hardly above criticism: it consumes enormous resources, employs tens of thousands, and still cannot effectively sift "electronic chatter" for terrorist threats. Yet while Odom has no trouble tossing brickbats at the self-mythologizing ethos of other intelligence organizations, he swallows NSA's own heroic pantheon hook, line, and sinker. In particular, he lauds the example of H. O. Yardley, founder of the code-breaking enterprise known as the "Black Chamber" and America's signals intelligence supremo during World War I and the 1920s (p. 128). Odom hails Yardley's successes--which famously include identifying the Japanese delegation's bottom-line negotiating position at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921--portraying him as the unappreciated Cassandra-figure of the "sigint" world. In fact, Yardley was also the basest sort of traitor, who sold America's cryptographic secrets to the Japanese in 1928 for $7,000. Even accounting for inflation, Yardley's honor went for a much cheaper price than that of Robert Hansson or Aldrich Ames. It is a bit rich to criticize William Donovan, who for all his foibles was unquestionably an American hero, when your own icon is a traitorous reprobate with a gambling addiction.
Odom's inability to adopt an objective approach toward NSA is a serious weakness. Apologists for the FBI and CIA may attempt to portray Fixing Intelligence as yet another attempt by the Defense Department to undermine or wrest control of the civilian intelligence agencies. This charge may contain a sliver of truth: the idea for the book was, after all, the product of a Defense and NSA-dominated study for the Institute of Public Policy in 1997. Ultimately, however, Odom's institutional biases constitute only a small blot on an otherwise fine effort.
Fixing Intelligence has something to offer every reader. Journalists and political scientists should appreciate Odom's detailed portrait of the existing U.S. intelligence apparatus. Policymakers and members of the clandestine world, in America and abroad, will find his prescriptions for change stimulating, albeit controversial. The target audience, however, is clearly the voting public in the United States. For them, Fixing Intelligence will be both reassuring and deeply shocking. Americans can take comfort in the expertise of the men and women who constitute their intelligence community, many of whom are extremely competent at their jobs. They will be disquieted to learn that, in its current form, their clandestine services are handicapped when dealing with a powerful non-state terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda. The American intelligence system is bloated, bureaucratic, and poorly managed. General Odom has challenged Americans to demand change and crafted a bold plan to guide reform.
. Shelby quoted in "Press Release: Independent Commission to Investigate Events Leading Up to September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks, Statement by Sen. Richard C. Shelby," http://shelby.senate.gov/news/record.cfm?id=187264.
. See Robert Baer, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003).
. Robert Bryant, John Hamre, John Lawn, John MacGaffin, Howard Shapiro, and Jeffrey Smith, "America Needs More Spies," The Economist 368:8332 (12-18 July 2003): pp. 30-31.
. It is the main theme of an excellent new revisionist history of the U.S. intelligence community: Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 6-9.
. Thomas Powers, "From the Grave, Helms Tells How, Not What," review of A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency by Richard Helms with William Hood, New York Times, May 14, 2003, p. 10. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/14/books/14POWE.html.
. It is, however, entirely legitimate to question the efficacy and legitimacy of peacetime covert operations. The "Bay of Pigs" fiasco of April 1961 is an archetypical case. CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick's operational post-mortem is now available in Peter Kornbluh, ed., Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba (New York: The New Press, 1998).
. Jeffreys-Jones, Cloak and Dollar, pp. 109-110.
. There is certainly a long history of military-civilian infighting within the intelligence world. The first and most serious example was the attempt by the head of the Military Intelligence Division (MID), Brig. Gen. George V. Strong, to wrest control of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) from Donovan in early 1943. See Thomas F. Troy, Donovan and the CIA (New York: Aletheia Books, 1981), p. 169.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
T. C. Wales. Review of Odom, William E., Fixing Intelligence: For a More Secure America.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.