The Greenspan Solution for U.S. Intelligence

How can U.S. intelligence be better insulated from political pressure?

July 22, 2004

How can U.S. intelligence be better insulated from political pressure?

The reports from the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) contain a number of recommendations on how to improve the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies.

These recommendations range from providing more resources and facilitating better coordination to the creation of a new director of national intelligence (DNI), who would have complete control over the entire U.S. intelligence community — including Department of Defense (DOD) intelligence operations.

All of these ideas have merit and are worth considering. The rationale behind creating a DNI is particularly appealing, since it would put one person in charge of the entire community from the CIA to DOD intelligence operations.

But the fundamental dilemma facing all CIA Directors (DCI), a dilemma that would also confront a DNI, is how to keep politics out of intelligence. In theory, having an impartial head of the intelligence community is a great idea. In practice, however, this is tough to accomplish.

Under the present system, the DCI serves at the pleasure of the president — and is a part of his policy team. That makes impartiality on the part of the DCI nearly impossible. Unless this issue is dealt with directly, the question of the politicization of intelligence will not go away.

An effective DCI should have a good working relationship with the president in order to ensure that the intelligence community is an integral part of decisions affecting the security of the country.

But this in turn can make it difficult to ask the person in charge of U.S. intelligence to divorce himself or herself entirely from the policy decisions of the primary client of the DCI — the president.

No amount of inter-agency coordination or budget authority can change that dynamic. But what could help is to put some distance between the head of the intelligence community and his or her colleagues and the day-to-day politics of any administration. A model for this idea is the Federal Reserve Board (Fed).

There are seven members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, who collectively determine U.S. monetary policy. This is a huge responsibility that has far-reaching consequences for the U.S. and world economies.

Each governor is appointed for 14 years. Appointments are staggered. On January 31 of each even-numbered year, an appointment expires. Unless that governor has completed a full term — as opposed to simply filling out the term of another governor — he or she cannot be reappointed.

Perhaps most crucially, governors cannot be removed over policy matters. The chairman and vice chairman of the Fed are chosen from among the governors by the president for an initial four-year term. They can be reappointed until their 14-year term expires.

To be sure, no high-level government position is totally immune from politics. But the system — under which the chairman of the Fed and its board of governors operate — safeguards against the understandable political pressure of supporting and promoting the president's agenda.

The heads of the intelligence community — from the CIA to other members of the intelligence community, including the departments of defense, state, justice and homeland security — should be appointed along similar lines. In addition, a DNI could also be chosen in a manner similar to the head of the Fed.

These steps could help ensure a much higher degree of insulation between the intelligence community and the policy makers they serve.

This idea would not be in conflict with suggestions to create a new intelligence head that is fully in charge of all U.S. intelligence-related matters, including budgets.

Neither would it interfere with the special relationship the intelligence community has with the president or its congressional oversight committees. The president would still be briefed regularly, and that person would regularly brief Congress, just as the chairman of the Fed does.

What this model would do is make the new head of the intelligence community less prone to outside political pressure in the same way that the chairman of the Fed is less prone to such pressure on how to respond to economic trends.

The proof of this is the reappointment of various Fed chairmen by presidents of different parties. Current Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan — who was first appointed by President Reagan and subsequently reappointed by President Bush (41), President Clinton and President Bush (43) — is a good example.

Washington is a political town — and the president is its chief politician, as well as its policy leader. No high-ranking government official working with the White House can, therefore, be totally apart from the political aspects of policy decisions.

But it is important that the head of the intelligence community have the strongest possible safeguards against political pressure — unintended or otherwise.

There is at least as much riding on getting U.S. intelligence right as there is on maintaining the right level of interest rates.