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President Bush, joined by members of Congress and his Cabinet, signed the intelligence reform bill into law in Washington on Dec. 17. ‘‘It will enable us to better do our duty,’’ Bush said.
President Bush, joined by members of Congress and his Cabinet, signed the intelligence reform bill into law in Washington on Dec. 17. ‘‘It will enable us to better do our duty,’’ Bush said. (Getty Images Photo)

US intelligence shake-up meets growing criticism

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is expected to name the nation's first director of national intelligence as early as this week -- the crowning change won by critics of America's spy services who fought a bruising political battle to centralize spy activities and create a clearinghouse for terrorism reports after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But a growing number of current and former intelligence officials and spies are concerned that the organizational changes that were requested by the Sept. 11 Commission, backed by victims' families, and adopted by Congress, could be drawing attention away from more-serious shortcomings in the national security net that need to be addressed.

''I feel sorry for these 9/11 families who thought passing this intelligence bill will improve things," said retired Air Force General William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, the nation's largest spy organization. ''They have been swindled. The more I think about it, the more awful it is. It's tragic."

Odom and more than a dozen other intelligence professionals interviewed by the Globe said the changes, hailed as the most sweeping overhaul of America's intelligence system in a half-century, do not address the system's biggest problems: a lack of accurate intelligence coming in from the field and a shortage of skilled analysts to synthesize the data collected.

''It does little to address analytic and collection capabilities," said Vincent Cannistraro, former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center. ''I am not optimistic the so-called reforms are going to lead to quality intelligence. It does nothing to remedy the poor source information we have had."

Truly reforming America's spy capabilities to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks or avoid the kind of faulty analyses that clouded the decision to go to war in Iraq will ultimately depend on who Bush taps to be his intelligence czar, according to Odom, Cannistraro, and others. They say it also will depend on whether he or she is willing to use the power of the new office to change the culture of the clandestine services and ensure that the intelligence services stay out of politics.

''It is mainly a question of the style and clout that the director has," said David MacMichael, a former CIA analyst who worries the changes will not improve intelligence activities without a strong personality to take full advantage of the historic opportunity.

The White House has been mum about who will get the top post, but several administration and intelligence officials said a leading candidate is John Lehman, a Republican member of the Sept. 11 Commission and a former Navy secretary.

''It has to be somebody who has stature and the political clout to make real changes," MacMichael said. ''The basic thing here in terms of a better functioning intelligence is that you [must] get a person with independence and integrity," he said. ''He has to be willing to say, 'I will put my resignation on the president's desk if I'm thwarted one more time' " from making independent and painful overhauls.

The new national intelligence director will eclipse the head of the CIA as the president's primary intelligence adviser and will manage the budgets and priorities of the nation's 15 spy agencies. Advocates say a central manager will go far in making the intelligence community more efficient.

''Our vast intelligence enterprise will become more unified, coordinated, and effective," Bush said in signing the intelligence reform bill on Dec. 17. ''It will enable us to better do our duty, which is to protect the American people."

In a November memorandum to new CIA director Porter Goss, Bush acknowledged the CIA needs to hire more Arabic speakers and infiltrate more terror groups in the Middle East, as well as strengthen its analytic capabilities.

But the intelligence reform legislation mandates few changes in how spy agencies collect and analyze intelligence, and the structural changes it put into motion are stealing momentum from the fundamental changes needed, critics say.

Already, insiders say much of the effort within the intelligence community is focused on clearing away legal hurdles to ensure that the new intelligence structure works smoothly -- not on addressing the nation's ability to gather and analyze intelligence. ''The lawyers are making sure statutes are not overlapping or not workable," said an intelligence official involved in executing the changes and who asked not to be named.

''It's a sham," Mel Goodman, another longtime CIA analyst, said of the new structure. ''I don't think it changes anything."

Ray McGovern, a 27-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine service, said of the changes: ''They add an extra layer. But the problem is not a structural one."

McGovern said that because the Sept. 11 Commission declined to blame individuals for the intelligence failures, it had to find fault somewhere else.

''The commission concluded, therefore, that 'it must have been the system, it must be something with how we organized ourselves,' " he said. ''That is 90 percent wrong. It is the people, stupid."

Goss, who has cleaned out much of the CIA's top management since taking over in September, also is talked about as a possible intelligence czar.

But Goss has received mixed reviews inside the intelligence community and in Congress. While replacing or forcing into retirement nearly a dozen top officials in both the CIA's operations directorate and most recently the analysis branch, he has weeded out much of the top layer of the CIA that presided over the Sept. 11 and Iraq war intelligence failures.

But former officials such as Cannistraro said they worry that those changes are not intended merely to bring in new blood to restore confidence in the agency's mission among policy makers and the public -- but rather, also are politically motivated and directed by the White House.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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