'First, do no harm'

Posted: Nov 29, 2004 12:00 AM
The heat is on. Advocates of history?s most sweeping and least-considered ?reform? of the U.S. intelligence community are intent on having their way. In recent days, members of the 9/11 Commission and leading legislators of both parties have taken to the media with a mixture of dire warnings of bad things that will happen if their bill is not passed ? and utterly preposterous promises of good things to come if it is.

The former include the claim ? mostly advanced by Democrats ? that President Bush will be discredited, if not politically emasculated, if he is unable to compel balking Republican members of Congress to enact this legislation. The latter include assertions that passage of the intelligence reform bill is necessary to ?keep the American people safe.? The public ? 80% of whom we have endlessly been told favor this measure ? could reasonably be under the illusion that its adoption will prevent future terrorist attacks against this country.

Of course, none of this is true. Mr. Bush will be strengthened, not hurt ? and more importantly, so will the national interest ? should he recognize the wisdom of many on Capitol Hill, in the U.S. intelligence community and, yes, inside his own administration who know this bill to be too defective to warrant enactment.

Take, for example, the hotly contested issue of whether the bill?s proposal to reassign management control and budgetary authority for three Defense Department intelligence agencies to a new Director of National Intelligence will impair our military?s operations and security. Rep. Duncan Hunter, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and all the Joint Chiefs of Staff are convinced it will. The bill?s proponents insist it will not, often averring that they would never support legislation that would do such a thing, and suggest that their opponents are motivated by parochial interests.

Happily, there is one man in America whose unique credentials allow him to address the matter objectively: James Schlesinger, a former head of the intelligence community and past Secretary of Defense.

Here?s what Dr. Schlesinger had to say in testimony he gave the Senate Armed Services Committee on August 16th:

Intelligence is increasingly interwoven with military operations. We must always have in mind the crucial role of intelligence in support of the war fighter. The advance of military technology and its embodiment in our military forces have made intelligence ever more integral to our military strategy and battlefield tactics and to this country?s immense military advantage?.In all of this, the accuracy, the immediacy and the believability of intelligence is crucial?.

It has taken many years to persuade military commanders that national assets will reliably be available to them in the event of conflict?.To shift control over crucial intelligence assets outside the Department of Defense risks weakening the relative military advantage of the United States ? and at the same time creates the incentive to divert resources into (likely inferior) intelligence capabilities, which would further reduce the available forces.

Dr. Schlesinger concluded his Olympian testimony last August with a call for Congress to ?remember Hippocrates? injunction: ?First, do no harm.? In altering the structure of the intelligence community, it is essential to deliberate long and hard ? and not to be stampeded into doing harm?.Reform may now be necessary. Yet, in the vain pursuit of a perfect intelligence organization, do not shake up intelligence in a way that does do harm ? and in pursuit of this will-of-the-wisp, damage in particular those military capabilities that we alone possess.?

Fortunately, this eminently sensible advice to ?do no harm? has recently been echoed by two highly influential, yet politically divergent editorial pages. On November 22, the Wall Street Journal observed: ?Congress wrapped up its weekend lame-duck session without passing intelligence reform, and you will no doubt be reading outraged editorials and political moans that the country is now less safe. Don't believe it. The opposite may be closer to the truth, since the proposed reshuffling of the intelligence bureaucracies would have taken months, if not years, to carry out ? and certainly would have turned some of our spy agencies' attention away from the actual collection and analysis of intelligence?.If this reform is really so vital, it will get done, but better to do it in more considered fashion next year.?

Then, on November 24, the Washington Post editorialized: ?Last weekend, Congress passed up the opportunity to adopt, after scant consideration, the largest reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community in half a century ? a measure that was rushed through both houses with election-year zeal and then concocted by a conference committee into a 500-page omnibus that hardly anyone had read, much less considered?.A better solution would be to pause, let this election-year stampede subside and urge a new Congress to try again.?

Perhaps the real reason some in Congress are so intent on getting ?intelligence reform? legislation done now is that consideration of this matter next year would almost certainly require action they are resisting and have not addressed in the current bill: Much-needed streamlining and other improvements in legislative oversight of the intelligence community. That possibility to do real good is another excellent reason for our leaders to avoid doing harm to American intelligence when the lame duck session resumes next week.