The most dangerous moment in any transition is halfway through, when the old structure is badly weakened but the new one isn't yet strong enough to carry the load. That's where the Bush administration stands in its incomplete effort to restructure the intelligence community.
The intelligence reshuffle was the product of two warring impulses that have been apparent in this administration's foreign policy from the start -- a "realist" support for strong, independent spy agencies and a "neoconservative" mistrust, bordering on outright hatred, of the CIA as a supposed obstacle to the president's goals.
The intelligence-reform impulse led President Bush, after some foot-dragging, to back the recommendations of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission by creating a director of national intelligence to oversee the nation's 15 spy agencies and appointing veteran diplomat John Negroponte to fill the post. But before the new structure was in place, the president tapped Republican Rep. Porter Goss as director of the CIA. Goss was accompanied by a team of right-wing congressional staffers, quickly dubbed the "Gosslings" at Langley, who set out to cuff the CIA's headstrong Directorate of Operations into line.
The aim was to revitalize U.S. intelligence. But rather than consolidate and streamline the overlapping agencies, the new system has added even more boxes to the organization chart. The result has been a further layering of the intelligence community's bureaucracy and further demoralization among career intelligence officers. "Adding more layers causes indecision and confusion in the ranks, and leads to a wait-and-see, risk-averse attitude," warns Richard Stoltz, a former head of the CIA's clandestine service.
Negroponte's new DNI structure has had some successes. It finally created a central hub for coordinating the intelligence community -- something the old "director of central intelligence" role was supposed to accomplish but never did. Visit the DNI's Web site and you'll see the seal of the new intelligence czar at the center, surrounded by the seals of the 15 agencies that (at least in theory) he supervises. Negroponte showed his clout in September by scaling back a planned multibillion-dollar satellite surveillance system known as the Future Imagery Architecture, according to news reports. That was a good start on the kind of tough management the intelligence community needs.
Negroponte has inevitably concentrated on the small islands he actually controls within the intelligence archipelago -- the daily briefing of the president and the top-level analytical group known as the National Intelligence Council. Observers say that has led to crisper analysis of political options in Syria and Iraq. But some worry that Negroponte is so linked to the White House that he may politicize the process. They cite the DNI's release this month of excerpts from a letter allegedly written by al Qaeda strategist Ayman Zawahiri just as Bush was making a major speech on al Qaeda terrorism. Revealing the letter made sense, despite questions about its authenticity, but not as a prop for a presidential speech.
The reorganization that created Negroponte's office also established a National Counterterrorism Center and, just last week, a National Clandestine Service. But beneath these imposing bureaucratic edifices will be the old CIA structures, the Counterterrorism Center and the Directorate of Operations. The layers are confusing, especially for intelligence officers trying to make good choices about where to build their careers. And the reality is that the country doesn't have enough good terrorism analysts to staff two counterterrorism centers. The layering process is also evident in overlapping staffs to handle the public affairs and general counsel functions.
The really dangerous problems, though, lie in the heart of the CIA -- the Directorate of Operations (DO), which recruits the spies and runs the covert actions. The Gosslings have made a real mess of things, driving out a half-dozen top officers, most recently the DO's No. 2 official, 35-year veteran Robert Richer. Why these inexperienced congressional staffers thought they had better judgment than career professionals, many of them former military officers, is beyond me.
I'm told that Goss has now gotten warnings from the White House that he should clip the wings of the head Gossling, his chief of staff, Patrick Murray. Goss should heed that advice before even more officers quit in disgust at the political meddling. And Goss himself may be part of the problem. His laid-back style (liaison meetings with foreign intelligence services on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, please) is said to have led Negroponte to tell one colleague that Goss was still working a "congressional schedule."
The half-baked intelligence reorganization should go back in the oven. Negroponte, supported by President Bush, must finish the process -- and consolidate this overlayered bureaucracy. Getting intelligence right is a life-or-death matter for America, and, so far, it's only partly right.