June 06, 2020

How to fix our security system

Once the FBI’s Phoenix memo and subsequent broadsides from field offices surfaced, it was easy to connect the dots of political partisanship that would emerge. Some Democrats, eager to pull President Bush’s approval ratings down from stratospheric levels, insinuated that the commander in chief may have been derelict in his duty while on terror watch. The president and his top advisers, hardly neophytes on the subject of attack politics, returned fire with the dubious proposition that anyone who dares to question the president during a time of war (which is likely to last indefinitely) is unpatriotic. Moreover, marching onto the news broadcasts in tandem, they warned us that the terrorists are coming at our nuclear power plants, bridges, shopping malls, apartment buildings and sports stadiums, and that it is inevitable they will strike.

We need a cease-fire on the East Bank of the Potomac as well as the West Bank of the Jordan.

It is entirely appropriate for members of Congress to raise questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of our intelligence and national security system without fear that they’ll be tagged with the red badge of Benedict Arnold. But for any formal inquiry to be seen as credible and professional, it must place a high premium on statesmanship rather than political opportunism.

A debate is under way as to whether Congress or a blue ribbon commission should undertake such an inquiry. During the course of my public career, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in public and private investigations of our political policies and institutions. I believe that a case can be made for utilizing both processes to address near- and long-term objectives.

A joint House-Senate intelligence committee is already proceeding with a closed-door examination of our failure to anticipate or foil the September attack sponsored by Osama bin Laden. The panel is being led by highly competent, seasoned members who have a strong record of maintaining strict confidentiality of highly classified information.

Even as we seek to enlighten the American people as to what warnings of an impending attack were given prior to Sept. 11, and what level of attention they received within the national security establishment, it is important that our sources and methods of gathering intelligence be protected. It would be impossible to establish a new panel of experts, provide the members with security clearances, acquire professional staff and set in motion the fact-gathering process in the immediate future. Therefore it is important that the joint intelligence committee establish and collate all the facts involving warnings and threats, and focus on recommendations for some immediate steps to fill clearly identifiable deficiencies. This can be accomplished in a relatively short time, provided the administration fulfills its pledge of full cooperation.

But it is also imperative that we address the need to restructure our domestic and foreign intelligence apparatus so that it can operate and communicate in a time-urgent and more seamless fashion. Failure to do so would impede, if not prevent, victory in this “long twilight struggle” against the forces of terror.

A panel of scholars, public figures and intelligence leaders would be well-suited to undertake such an effort. Their recommendations for fundamental change and restructuring of the cultures, missions and methodologies of our intelligence agencies would prove indispensable in removing any issue of partisanship and the natural resistance of bureaucratic institutions to functional and behavioral modification. A group sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, was instrumental in laying the foundation for Congress to pass the historic legislative revision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

The American people care little for the senseless finger-pointing they see today from their elected officials. They are equally unimpressed with the attempt to silence voices of legitimate criticism with Cassandra-like forecasts of inevitable doom.

Our task is to develop the capability of our intelligence analysts to connect the fragmentary dots or tell-tale signs that reveal the names and plans of those in our midst who mean to destroy us. We have the choice and chance to do so. The question that remains is whether we have the will. “No” is not an acceptable answer.

William S. Cohen, a former secretary of defense, is chairman and CEO of the Cohen Group, an international strategic business consulting firm in D.C. He also served in the House for six years, in the Senate for 18 years and was vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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