Rebuilding Trust

Thursday, April 30, 2009
Joe Mazzafro

In mid April I thought the just released ODNI Inspector General’s assessment from last November of how the DNI/ODNI is failing to deliver on expectations five years on would be more than controversial enough for us to discuss.  Then came the events of Maersk Alabama, the bravery of her Captain Richard Phillips and skills of the Navy Seals  that forced the nation to finally take notice of the piracy problem off of the Horn of Africa - - -  certainly there are some intelligence issues here worth exploring.  As I am writing though the media is consumed by the release of Justice Department memos on “enhanced interrogation” techniques authorized by Bush Administration against high value Al Qaida captives and whether the memos should have been released, if the US engaged in torture, and what if any legal action should be taken against those involved.  Making this story even more compelling is whether senior Congressional Democrats gave tacit approval to these enhanced interrogation techniques by not objecting to them at the time when they where briefed about them by the Bush Administration.  The problem with the so called “torture memos” is what am I going to tell you that you have not read already?  Not much is what I suspect.

In a curious way, however, AFCEA’s Spring Intelligence Symposium on “Intelligence Transition” and the AFCEA Intelligence Committee’s accompanying White Paper “Congress and Intelligence Community: Rebuilding Trust” brought the above story lines into a connected context for me.  I am not sure if the IC has ever trusted the American people to understand what the community does, but I am sure that through their representatives in Congress the American citizens have come today to distrust the Intelligence Community that they generously resource. 

Those of you who attended the Spring Intelligence Symposium will know who I am referring to when say how struck I was by a retired IC’s senior’s comments about members of Congress telling the DNI in personally disparaging language with regard to updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that they did not believe DNI when he told Congressional members that NSA was going to extraordinary means to protect the civil liberties of American Citizens.  As this former IC senior who had first-hand knowledge of these events observed, this was not a case of Representatives and Senators saying they disagreed with the DNI on policy, or inferring he was the wrong person for the job, but rather questioning his veracity and integrity.

In one of the Symposium’s other sessions, Congressional staffers reacted in unison to the AFCEA Intelligence Committee’s White Paper on how to rebuild trust between the Congress and the IC as sophomoric.  Instead of addressing the basic issue of whether there is sufficient trust between the IC and the Congress each of them, in their own way, explained why any recommendation about structural change to the Congressional committee system was naïve and that there were political explanations all should understand for why an Intelligence Authorization Bill has not been passed for the last four years.  I understand that there is a natural and healthy constitutional tension that is supposed to exist between the Congressional oversight committees such as the HPSCI and SSCI and executive branch organs like the DNI, but I was appalled by the apparent tone deaf condescension to see Congress’ responsibilities and opportunities for reestablishing a climate of trust.  Instead, their reaction to the AFCEA White Paper was one of either “what trust problem?” and if there is one there’s not much anyone should expect the Congress to do about it.

Now in fairness to the Congress writ large, the IC since the establishment of DNI has made pretty much a hash of what matters most to our national legislature - - - acquisition, as chronicled in that November 2008 internal IG report on the value of the DNI organization to the IC.  Major IC capabilities programs are consistently behind schedule and above cost, while the number of contractors seems to grow year over year as do concerns that “inherently government IC functions” (prisoner interrogation, contract source selection, etc.) are being outsourced.  In the areas of systems engineering, program management, and outsourced mission functions, the IC has failed to develop a strategy that is responsive to both what the Congress wants corrected while providing the capabilities the IC needs within the resources provided.

A new President with new IC leadership should be an ideal time to turn the page and begin on a personal level to rebuild the bond of trust between the IC and the Congress.  I don’t know if that was starting to happen, but if it was the political firestorm over the release of the memos on the legal rational of why the enhance interrogation techniques the IC was authorized to used on Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) detainees was not torture is turning out to be caustic medicine on an open wound. Some say the release was necessary therapy, while others contend this public disclosure was crippling to national security.  Regardless, the Obama Administration, if not the IC, wants credit for self reporting and the Congress wants accountability for those involved at least at the policy level.  If I am reading what is in the media correctly, the IC sees itself as the “fall guy” who doesn’t know who it can trust at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

We all know why this is not good ---- a lack of trust this deep and systemic between the IC and the Congress will result in an even more risk adverse IC.  Ironically given the threats to national security in cyber space, piracy on the high seas, and extremists either developing or possessing nuclear weapons as well as the investments needed to recapitalize IC capabilities for the information age, both the Congress and the IC intellectually understand intelligence timidity is not in the nation’s best interest, but emotionally neither seem capable of trusting the other.  Let’s hope this inability doesn’t devolve into irrelevance.  As an AFCEA Intelligence Committee member I am biased, but it might be worthwhile if all concerned took the time to reflect on the fundamental message of the Committee’s White Paper on “Rebuilding Trust” and its recommendations.

That’s what I think; what do you think    joemaz

AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium Program

AFCEA Intelligence Committee White Paper : “Congress and the Intelligence Community: Rebuilding Trust” 

Share Your Thoughts:

Joe caught the message of the white paper, which is that building a productive relationship between the Intelligence Community and the Hill is a joint and collaborative responsibility. The white paper was not critical of overseers, but it is fairly outspoken on the quality of a relationship in which diminished trust has led to oversight that has become tactical (rather than strategic), in part because Congress has felt the need to address lower level issues. Regarding organization of Congressional oversight of the Community: The white paper is not prescriptive. The issue in question is not: How should Congressional committees be organized? Rather, the real issue: Is Congress doing what it needs to be doing? Does the current organization allow Congress to do what it needs to be doing?