Thursday, August 26, 2004

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Amy Zegart goes medieval on Fred Kaplan

As I said in my previous post on the topic, Fred Kaplan really disliked Senator Roberts' intelligence proposal. Some highlights from his Slate piece:

Sen. Pat Roberts' plan to overhaul the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy is a true stinker, every bit as bad as his establishment critics contend....

Anyone who studies the "intelligence community" as much as Roberts does would also know—or should—that the proposal, if it were put into effect, would do more harm than good. So again, what's going on here?

....The first is that he's advancing a deliberately extreme proposal in order to prod the stuffy, stodgy bureaucracy into moving. He's telling the White House that if Bush doesn't start making serious reforms, Congress will—possibly in ways that the executive branch won't like. And he's shifting the definition of "acceptable" reform: By proposing a plan that goes well beyond the 9/11 commission's proposals, he is making those commission proposals seem more moderate by comparison....

However, there is a second, more cynical, and, alas, more plausible theory: He's putting out a proposal that's deliberately out-to-lunch, in order to distract the debate from more reasonable resolutions, to deflect attacks on Bush, and to discourage the whole idea of organizational reform.

I think it's safe to say that intelligence reform expert Amy Zegart really dislikes Fred Kaplan's take. She e-mailed me the following reaction:

I am, as my four-year old would put it, "steaming mad." Where to begin? First, anyone who has spent 5 seconds with Pat Roberts (and I spent 3 hours in front of him last week) knows he's deadly serious about reform. Where has Fred Kaplan been? Has he read the 500+ page Senate Intelligence Committee report Roberts' committee wrote in July about WMD in Iraq and the pathological deficiencies in the IC that led to it? Does he think this report descended like manna from heaven or does he realize the Committee's expert staff spent, oh I don't know, a year on it? I have anextra copy; perhaps I should send it to him.

Second, Kaplan forgets conveniently the fact that 2 of the key ideas in this proposal --splitting the CIA's clandestine side from its analytical side and creating a new national intelligence director -- were EXACTLY the same as a proposal made 12 years ago by David Boren and David McCurdy, the Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees. Then there is the substance of his claims. There are many valid concerns about this proposal, but Kaplan does not raise them.

Post your own thoughts below.

UPDATE: Esther Pan has compiled an excellent backgrounder on the different reform proposals at the Council on Foreign Relations web site.

posted by Dan on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM


Fred Kaplan is a tool. I stopped reading his column about two years ago when it became increasingly clear that he never really thought about the questions and problems about which he bloviates.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

Kaplan's always been a light-weight. He's good at explaining to the lay-person declassified technical ideas and history in geopolitics, military affairs, and intelligence. However he doesn't have much gravitas. He's just a guy writing from the seat of his pants op-eds when he get's away from well-defined issues.

Tell Amy not to get so steamed up. Kaplan's got no mojo. She should be irritated that he's spreading uninformed opinion, but she shouldn't be surprised. He's just another hack making stuff up about stuff he doesn't really know.

On his beat, when Kaplan is writing about well documented technical issues he's okay. When he deviates from that ... boy does he really not know his stuff. But the summary is that Kaplan ain't got no mojo.

posted by: oldman on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

Zegart is wrong. She herself pointed out that the CIA originated with a pure analysis mission.

Until the policy and bureaucratic reasons for expansion of the CIA's mission to intelligence gathering and covert operations are addressed, any new organization risks doing the same thing.

Failure to address that issue now means that we'll suffer the inefficiency penalties of a major reorganization in the middle of hostilities without gaining off-setting benefits later on.

Not to mention that the concept of centralizing intelligence analysis in a single organization is brain-dead. That would just centralize failure a la the Los Angeles public school district.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

Yes, Tom you're right. That still doesn't mean that Kaplan's analysis beyound technical issues isn't fluff. Which is Amy's point.

posted by: oldman on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

Part of me is thinking, "Gee, isn't it great that Drezner's blog is providing a forum for intelligent (nay, informed) discussion about weighty matters?" But the other part is thinking "My God, is there no more mainstream stage for this discussion??? Isn't this TOO important to carry on in blog format?

Anyone? Dan? Amy?

posted by: Kelli on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

I'd love to see this looked at a little more myself.

It makes some sense to separate the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence.

I'm not clear why a DNI will work better when the DCI was supposed to be the DNI and ended up just another stakeholder among umpteen competing intelligence organizations. Nor am I clear how the new DNI is supposed to get tasking and budgetary authority over such a large pile of DOD assets without effectively forming a new Peartment of intelligence -- nor am I clear how a new DeptINT could be formed without wastefully duplicating the functions of the DOD for operations and logistics.

posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

It seems that Fred Kaplan is more concerned with criticizing Republicans that he is about reforming our intelligence gathering and analysis. It is sad that otherwise knowledgable people have let politics and their dislike of the otherside to overcome rational thinking.
It seems to be a widespread phenomenon, especially among our friends on the left and even center-left.


Jim Bender

posted by: Jim Bender on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

Woooo. Professor Zegart lays the smack down!! It can easily be said that Kaplan's piece really wasn't about anything. However, I do think Kaplan is channeling a lot of the (initial) reaction to Roberts plan, felt by many on the Hill and especially at Langley. There is a lot of nostalgia for the CIA. Okay, we'll call it "awe of tradition" of the CIA. So in that sense one can see why there are some out and about who think the idea of breaking up the Agency is a tad crazy.

As for the plan itself, I think it has a good chance of passing IF Senate Intelligence Republicans can get the Democrats on board (that's easy) and the 9/11 Commission too (that's less easy). Kerry is likely to support the plan if everyone is going along with it. What really matters is how much interference or opposition the president is willing to run on this issue. The jury is still out on that one.

And Tom, comparing the L.A. School District to Central Intelligence is not exactly sensible. Though, both do serve hot meals from time to time.

posted by: Edwards on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

You can move the deck chairs around on the Titantic all you want. But, until someone, whether in the CIA, FBI or Pentagon, actually gets fired for screwing up there is no incentive to change attitudes, usual ways of doing things, etc. There are numerous examples in the 9/11 Report that describe how some key people, at various levels, simply did not carry out responsibilities as stipulated in their job descriptions.

Some of the lower level management FBI people who refused to pass on info related to Middle-Eastern men taking flying lessons under suspicious circumstances have actually been promoted. The analysts in the Defense Dept who pushed the now discredited intel from Chalabi are still in their positions and are defended under the umbrella of "well, everyone believed Saddam had WMDs." While that may be partially true, not everyone believed in the credibility of Chalabi. How could a serious analyst not consider the fact that experienced professionals in the CIA, the US State Dept, the Israeli clandestine service and others, had found Chalabi to be unreliable, for different reasons, and at different points in time?

posted by: lansing on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

Professor Zegart must have one smart four year old. "Steaming mad" ... that's a fairly sophisticated construction for a four year old. Intelligence must run in the family.

posted by: Ray on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

I disagree with Zegart, for two reasons.

First, the SSCI report on Iraqi WMD was terrible. It's not good simply because it's long and took a year to write, as Zegart suggests. (By those criteria, every doctoral dissertation is a gem.) It gets basic definitions wrong, like "groupthink." More importantly, it purposely ignores the role of policymakers in the production cycle; anybody with even the most superficial knowledge of intel understands that this means ignoring the elephant in the living room. This was blatant political cover for the White House.

Yet, despite the fact that SSCI said that it was putting aside the issue until after the election, it still found time to declare that there was no pressure from above (e.g., Summary Conclusion 102). If the Committee wasn't researching the issue, how did it come to this bold conclusion?

(For a different take, see John Prados' lengthy analysis of CIA threat reporting between 1998-2003, from last year's Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Prados demonstrates that the substance of CIA reporting changed little over that time period, but the tone of the prose became increasingly ominous. Given that CIA acquired no new information on Iraq during that time, he concludes that change came as a response to policymakers who needed actionable findings. Read the article and make up your own mind.)

Second, Zegart's faith in Roberts stretches credulity. She knows well that his plan has no chance of going through. The outlandish subtance of the proposal and the manner in which Roberts sprung his idea show that he knows it, too.

posted by: JR on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

Maybe if our intel professionals -- and I used to be part of 'the community', so I will claim a bit of knowledge about the systems, though not the specifically the Middle East -- hadn't been second guessed by an office that appears to have been working as much for Israel as for the United States, the final determination of 'WMD' would have been more accurate.

posted by: stari_momak on 08.26.04 at 01:14 PM [permalink]

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