So it is to be a czar of all the intelligence services. As I predicted in last week's column, all the president's men have engulfed the remaining opposition to the intelligence reform bill and (as I write on Tuesday) the House of Representatives will imminently pass the bill with strong bipartisan support. Like its namesake, the czar of all the Russias, our new czar is likely to begin what will become a very mixed record. (Note: Beware of large bipartisan majorities. They usually form around either trivial issues or headline-driven, rushed proposals.)
Perhaps our first czar will be up to the standards of Russia's first czar, Ivan the Terrible. Ivan, a mere lad of 17 on being crowned, quickly got married, after choosing a bride through a national virgin competition, and then went on to conquer the Muslim Tartars -- obliterating their cultural heritage in the process.
He went on to conquer and annex Astrakhan, Kazan and Siberia. He set up the first secret police, the Oprichniki, and spent most of his career killing and torturing opponents -- real and imagined. He threw live animals to their death off his castle tower -- for the sheer pleasure of seeing the poor beasts crash to the ground and die. Needless to say he is a great national hero -- and Stalin's favorite czar.
At the other end of the czar spectrum was poor little Nicholas the Second, the last czar of all the Russias. He was weak and ineffective, stubbornly claiming absolute power by divine right, even as he was dominated by his uncles and intimidated by his czarina, Alexandra.
While unable to manage his country effectively, his hereditary powers permitted him to block effective management by his prime minister and other men who, left to their own authority, might well have been able to lead Russia successfully into the twentieth century. Finally, Nicholas was overthrown by Lenin and shot along with his wife and all their children.
While these are two models for our new czar, I suppose the supporters of the intelligence reform bill will hope for Peter the Great as the model -- enlightened, effective and humane (by the standards of his time and place.)
For my money, I will bet on the Nicholas model -- ineffective and meddling. We have just created yet another layer of bureaucracy through which all-important decisions will have to pass. And like any czar, ours must have his court -- or as we call them today, his staff. As controller of almost all of the intelligence budgets, each of his subalterns (directors of the CIA, DIA and the other dozen or so current intelligence services) will have to make their case to him for decisions ranging from buying a new spy satellite to how much money should be in the reptile fund (needed for miscellaneous skullduggery.)
And, of course, whoever hands out the money must keep checking on how his money is spent. But, as no one man can have the time to properly monitor so many projects, he will have staffers who will roam the halls of the working intelligence agencies. As is always the case in such matters, a colonel on the czar's staff will trump a three star general with responsibilities to actually accomplish something in the real world.
The current system lacks an accelerator and a steering wheel. The reformers are betting that the czar will be the steering wheel. I'm betting he and his inevitably ever-growing number of staffers will become yet more brakes. Worse, on many maneuvers, he will be steering blind. And when he tries to steer, there will be a terrible delay between when he turns the wheel on the bridge and when the great vehicle actually begins to swerve. It will be like taking the Queen Mary through a slalom.
All this is being brought down on our intelligence services because of a misdiagnosis after Sept. 11 -- the dreaded stovepipe. Yes, it was true that the CIA and FBI could not easily talk with each other -- because existing federal law prohibited many forms of communications.
So, to stop little bits of information going up separate stovepipes (an unuseful metaphor established by the critics in 2002, as valuable information is not equivalent to exhaust smoke) -- we are adding a new story to the house and a common chimney on the top. Other remodeling will inevitably follow. Although note, the FBI is still in a separate building.
But what needed to be changed -- and still needs to be changed -- is the culture and habits of the different services. The cure for that is new doctrines and new leadership -- preferably at the agency, not super agency, level. An Ivan the Terrible might just be able to accomplish that. But Congress has not been that bold (thank God.) They have created a czar who is just powerful enough to meddle, but not powerful enough to mold and lead (a power in one man's hand that has its own obvious dangers.)
This is the result that flows from a lot of hysterical people saying the status quo is unacceptable, and something, anything must be done. Well, they have done something. Let's hope it doesn't end with a firing squad.