Spy agencies prepare for administration change

The intelligence community has begun to offer briefings to the two leading presidential candidates as the spy agencies prepare for the first presidential transition since a sweeping reform law passed in 2004.

The law, which demanded greater integration of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies, reorganized the nation’s intelligence community significantly, institutionally and technologically. It was largely a response to the criticism that U.S. intelligence efforts had incurred for not preventing the 2001 terrorist attacks and for faulty intelligence used to justify the Iraq War.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who sponsored the 2004 intelligence reform law, said it represented a sea change in the structure and operation of the intelligence community.

“Now the trail of dots terrorists leave behind as they plan, train and organize will never again be left unconnected,” she said.

The next president will inherit the new structure, which includes the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) as the head of that community, and a workforce that has gotten younger and larger since 2001.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) received an ODNI briefing Sept. 2, and ODNI has also offered one to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). President Bush recently authorized ODNI to begin briefing the candidates on topics at their request, said Tom Fingar, ODNI’s deputy director for analysis. As senators, both candidates have already had clearance to access to intelligence assessments.

“One of the bottom line realities is that [ODNI] has never before been through a transition,” Fingar said last week at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s Analytic Transformation 2008 conference in Orlando, Fla. “And simple questions like how many and which members of the senior staff are expected to hand in letters of resignation or expected to stay on into the next administration or to be around for just a period of transition,” have no precedent.

Roughly 55 percent to 60 percent of the people in the intelligence community have joined just since the 2001 attacks, and many on ODNI’s staff are on detail from other agencies, Fingar said.

While ODNI officials try to provide information to the candidates, they’re also working internally to prepare the intelligence community to meet the next administration’s needs.

“One of the questions I’ve asked [of the campaigns] is, how do you guys want information,” Fingar said. “It’s our job to match their style, not [for] them to adjust to what we have done for somebody else.”

However, Fingar said any attempt to scrap the reforms that have taken place during the Bush administration should be off the table. Although not everything has flowed perfectly, the intelligence community’s reform efforts have been successful in restoring confidence in intelligence products, he said.

“We had to be there at the right time, in the right place, with the right information, with important insights,” he said. “We had to be able to move these across [information technology] boundaries and across institutional boundaries.”

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said that although some changes are inevitable with a new administration, he believes they will be more about perfecting the current situation rather than a large-scale overhaul, such as the one in 2004.

“It’s in the nature of things that we are going to have too much of something and not enough of something else,” he added.

Some transformational tools and techniques, including in particular Intellipedia and the collaborative online environment for analysts called A-Space, have crossed a tipping point where they’re no longer seen as novelties, Fingar said.

Michael Wertheimer, ODNI’s assistant deputy director for analytic transformation and technology, said that by using mass collaboration tools, the community is eliminating the unsubstantiated biases that can creep in when only one or a small number of people are involved.

During the past year, ODNI has created 71 protected community of interest sites that allow users to post documents and ideas, Wertheimer said. That means more than 13,500 of the sites’ users are called on to defend their hypotheses and analytical ideas. The challenge makes unsupported assumptions harder to maintain.

“It allows us to firm up alternative hypotheses because it fills in gaps — either it falls apart or it grows stronger,” said Wertheimer. “That’s really powerful because now our alternatives are backed up with more certainty than they ever have been in the past.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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