Study Finds Interagency Gaps Hurt U.S. Counterintelligence Efforts

September 29, 2008 in News, Report by admin



Judith Evans
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WASHINGTON –The Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX) has failed to get federal agencies to work together to implement a proactive U.S. strategy to combat foreign intelligence threats because it was never given the necessary authority or responsibility, according to the former head of the office.

Michelle Van Cleave writes in a study issued today that the NCIX was given the mission – but not the power – to unite U.S. counterintelligence operations divided among the FBI, CIA, Army, Navy and Air Force. She says there is no formal strategic program to defeat foreign intelligence threats because the leadership of the historically independent counterintelligence agencies largely ignored NCIX guidance and strategic direction.

Van Cleave’s study, prepared for the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR), is her first public comment about the difficulties she faced as the nation’s first statutory head of counterintelligence from 2003 to 2006. She was appointed by President George W. Bush.

“The statutory intent (of Congress in creating the NCIX) has been frustrated at every turn,” Van Cleave writes in the study. “Strategic integration takes a back seat to individual agency priorities. National leadership exists in name only. Across the government, our CI (counterintelligence) capabilities are in decay. We seemingly cannot get ahead of the cycle of losing talent. And the potential costs of failure are profound.”

Van Cleave presented her study today as part of a conference held by PNSR at the Hudson Institute to highlight the release of PNSR’s first volume of case studies documenting problems in America’s national security system. A study on U.S.-China relations was also presented at the conference, which was called “Making a Case for Restructuring U.S. National Security in the 21st Century.”

PNSR is directed by a 25-member Guiding Coalition that includes former senior federal officials with extensive national security experience. The project is located within the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization.

“We’ve conducted more than 100 case studies to give us a foundation of research for our analysis and findings,” said PNSR Executive Director James R. Locher III. “This has enabled us to produce the most comprehensive evaluation of America’s national security system in more than 60 years.”

Former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin, who is a member of the Guiding Coalition, joined Locher at the conference today to discuss PNSR’s Preliminary Findings Report issued in July. Locher also discussed PNSR’s plans to issue a second report later this year making recommendations to Congress and the next president to update America’s national security system.

PNSR’s first report says the National Security Act of 1947 is outdated and needs a massive restructuring. The report points out that it is important for U.S. government agencies to be able to work together across bureaucratic lines to meet today’s national security challenges.


Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the PNSR Case Study Working Group, also spoke at the conference to discuss his case study “Managing U.S. China Crises.”

The study examines how the need for national security reform extends to the U.S. government’s relations with the People’s Republic of China. It analyzes three U.S.-China crises that occurred under different presidential administrations and shows that well-integrated strategies were often hard to implement within the bureaucracy of the U.S. government.

The crises Weitz discusses involve: the Chinese military’s decision to use force to suppress unarmed student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (during the administration of President George H.W. Bush); the 1999 bombing by U.S. aircraft of China’s embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War (during the administration of President Bill Clinton); and the 2001 collision between an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter aircraft off China’s coast (during the administration of President George W. Bush).

Weitz notes that patterns emerged as each presidential administration dealt with China crises.

“Absent close presidential attention, the [U.S.] agencies would often develop and pursue their own China policies, contributing to undesirable policy incoherence,’’ Weitz writes. “Serious problems arose when the crisis occurred early in a presidential transition since the new administrations had yet to establish fully functioning interagency processes or secure Senate approval of many mid-level political appointees.”

Weitz adds that “the main achievement of the U.S. government response to all the crises involved costs avoided – normally not a major accomplishment, but important here, when mismanaging events could have escalated into nuclear war.”


In her study of the NCIX, Van Cleave said the office was created as an independent agency that reported directly to the president, but was absorbed into the newly created Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2005.

Initially a supporter of the merger, Van Cleave soon concluded that the DNI office had become part of the problem. She expected that the DNI would delegate his counterintelligence responsibilities to the NCIX. Instead, DNI deputies were given control of the counterintelligence budget, along with authority for tasking counterintelligence collection and analysis.

The result was that the NCIX was swallowed into the DNI bureaucracy, writes Van Cleave, and became just another bureaucratic layer rather than the unifying leader that Congress had intended. The NCIX office then became further estranged from the president’s national security team – particularly after Congress gave the DNI the authority to appoint the NCIX.

“Instead of protecting this careful consolidation of national leadership when the NCIX was brought under the new DNI, the old model of functional divides, with its old problems, resurfaced,” Van Cleave writes.

The NCIX received little support from counterintelligence managers during the development of the first national strategy because agencies were reluctant to embrace a national strategy over their own internal priorities, according to Van Cleave.

The FBI, for example, which gets the lion’s share of U.S. counterintelligence funding and is the lead counterintelligence agency for the government, unilaterally withdrew most of its employees from the NCIX office, Van Cleave writes. In addition, the FBI issued its own national strategy for counterintelligence two months after the NCIX’s presidentially approved strategy was issued.

In another instance, the NCIX asked each counterintelligence agency to align its programs and resource allocations against the new national strategic counterintelligence objectives.

“Miraculously, all existing departments and agency CI plans, programs and budgets matched perfectly to the new national strategic priorities,” Van Cleave writes. “No real changes were needed. No new starts. No hard choices. Unbelievable. Literally, unbelievable.”

Van Cleave writes that the NCIX had no authority to bring counterintelligence activities at other agencies within compliance. The NCIX legislation created a national executive to provide strategic focus, but not the means to execute a strategic program.

“In having the high honor of leading that community, I came to understand the true potential for counterintelligence as a strategic instrument of statecraft,” Van Cleave writes. “I also saw the terrible costs of legacy practices that divide rather than unite our community, to the detriment of our common mission.”

Among the recommendations Van Cleave suggests for the NCIX:

• The NCIX should be empowered by the DNI to manage a clearly defined strategic counterintelligence program to defeat high priority foreign intelligence threats, and assigned the necessary resources, authorities and accountability to do that job.

• Counterintelligence operations should remain with their agencies, but those agencies should be directed by law or presidential order to support the national strategy and the strategic counterintelligence program.

• An elite national counterintelligence strategic operations center should be established, staffed and empowered by the constituent members of the counterintelligence community. The center would integrate counterintelligence activities across the government to identify, assess, and defeat foreign intelligence threats to the United States and its vital interests. The DNI and the NCIX could supply additional insights and options for policymakers to achieve national security objectives and translate their priorities into a strategic counterintelligence effort.

• National security leadership needs to be educated about the place of counterintelligence in national strategy, to bridge the gap between the national security decision making process and the work of U.S. counterintelligence.