Posted: May 12, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a courtyard of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia is a statue of Nathan Hale, the first American ever executed for spying. In the days before satellites, cell phones and electronic surveillance, young Nathan Hale volunteered to go into enemy territory and acquire the "human intelligence" General George Washington needed to make future war plans. Regrettably, Hale had neither the tools nor the training necessary to allow him to escape back to friendly lines. Captured by the British, legend has it that as Hale stood on the gallows from which he would be hanged, his last words were, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

The sculpture of Nathan Hale ought to be moved from the courtyard to the front entrance of the CIA headquarters. The move would serve to remind those who pass through the portals of the building how important human intelligence was -- and continues to be -- to our nation in an era when we are threatened by radical Islamic terror and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, this week's new leak of classified information about how the National Security Agency collects signals intelligence is likely to jeopardize a very necessary reorganization of the Central Intelligence Agency. The current firestorm was created by a hyperventilated 11 May 2006 USA Today article, which alleges that the NSA "has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans."  Despite the President's assurances that the NSA is "not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," and that "the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities," politicians are already using the most recent allegations as a reason to oppose the appointment of General Michael Hayden as the new head of the CIA. The NSA debate obscures an urgent reality: the CIA desperately needs new leadership and direction.

Nearly sixty years ago, The National Security Act of 1947 created not only a Central Intelligence Agency, but a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). The job of the DCI was three-fold: to oversee the entirety of the U.S. intelligence community; serve as head of the Central Intelligence Agency; and act as the principal advisor to the President for intelligence matters.

It never quite worked as intended. With few exceptions, the alphabet soup of  sixteen U.S. government agencies charged with the collection of intelligence -- CIA, NSA, DIA, NRO, INR, FBI, DOE, DHS, DEA, ATF, TFI, US Army, USN, USMC, USAF, USCG -- never danced to the beat of the DCI. The vicious terrorist attack of Sept. 11 proved how inadequate this bureaucracy was in collecting information and disseminating intelligence to those responsible for protecting the American people. All this was supposed to change when John Negroponte became the Director of National Intelligence on April 22, 2005. Now, a year later, it appears this reorganization hasn't worked either.

As politicians with the attention span of fruit flies rush to the microphones for "face time" on the NSA debate and the color of the suit that the new CIA director will wear, essential repairs to the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTP) and to the CIA's mission and methods are being swept aside. In the midst of a war, it's a distraction we can ill afford. A few examples:

The IRTP was so imperfectly written that vital organizations like the CIA's National Counter-terrorism Center must go hat-in-hand to various collection agencies to beg for information on terrorist cells, leaders and locations. The Defense Department has responded to this problem by creating whole new organizations within the Joint Special Operations Command for the collection of "actionable" human intelligence -- leaving the CIA "out of the loop."

The CIA desperately needs a leader who can re-focus the Agency's personnel, energy and attention at the Langley headquarters and globally on the collection of human intelligence.

The office of the DNI needs to have the authority to centralize "all source" intelligence collection -- but should be directed to leave the analysis of information distributed throughout the government. There is, as one senior national security official told me, "no such thing as ‘absolute intelligence.' We need ‘competitive analysis' and perspective so that the decision maker isn't presented with the lowest common denominator of what's disseminated."

These three "fixes" won't solve all the problems we have in our collection and use of intelligence -- but they will help. Those who think that we can afford to dither and dawdle need to see the recent film, "United 93."