Q&A: William D. “Bill” Murray

Former senior CIA operations officer William Murray on the CIA’s greatest strength—and why the Department of Homeland Security will be hard to fix.

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Mother Jones: Among the intelligence issues affected by the last eight years, what do you think will be possible to fix going forward?

William Murray: Fixing the intelligence community should not be that difficult, but it will require firm decision making from the new administration and a solid understanding of the issues. My own fear is that it will be seen as a low priority item and will not be addressed until we have the next incident that shows the system is not working.

The intelligence law [Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Protection Act] as it was passed was not perfect but it was workable. The new administration needs to look carefully at the law and then look at how it has been implemented. The implementation has been poor and misdirected. The 9/11 Commission faulted the previous system, in which the DCI [director of central intelligence] was the head of the intelligence community, for giving the DCI three jobs. The commission further faulted the DCI for only doing one—running the CIA.

The new law was meant to fix that problem by setting up a new authority, the director of national intelligence, with the powers necessary to run the entire intelligence community. It was never envisioned that the DNI would become yet another large Washington bureaucracy with an ever-growing staff, but that is exactly what is slowly occurring. The DNI was intended to manage the budget, establish intelligence priorities, and shift personnel and resources to accomplish these tasks.

Under the previous DCI system, the Pentagon had gradually gained control over more and more of the elements that make up the intelligence community to the point that national agencies such as NSA, the NRO, and NGA were and still are referred to as “combat support elements” by Pentagon briefers. In one Senate hearing as the new law was being debated, one senator objected and asked the Pentagon briefer why he was referring to these organizations as though they were Pentagon assets when in fact they are the essential elements of our national technical capabilities. The Pentagon briefer insisted on referring to them as “combat support elements.”

If there is any question about why this is important, review the history of the bomb damage assessments issue in the first Gulf War. The commanding general in the field was angry that the BDA done by CIA consistently reported less damage than what he believed was being done. The most important question was whether the Iraqi Republican Guard units had been destroyed. The general wanted total control over the BDA. At the end of the day, the Republican Guard had not been destroyed and the “national assets” under the control of CIA reported a correct version of what had and had not been destroyed. That whole capability is now a “combat support element,” and the previously independent verification by a civilian organization not subject to Pentagon control is gone.

The DNI was supposed to make sure that assets were used as necessary to answer the questions that the various members of the intelligence community are required to answer. It is fairly obvious that the Pentagon’s view of what it should control in the intelligence community was a problem prior to 9/11 and remains a problem today. The DNI system has been as ineffective in addressing this issue as was the DCI under the previous law. The issue is not authority. In fact, the DNI has nearly the same authorities under the law as the DCI. The same question was at the heart of the original 1947 National Security Act that created the CIA. This needs to be fixed if the DNI system is ever going to work, and it can be fixed.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is what Sen. Susan Collins, the senator chiefly responsible for the act, referred to frequently as “lanes in the road” to describe the need for cooperation but not duplication by the various agencies that make up the intelligence community. Competition among analysts of intelligence is a good thing and a healthy way to produce finished intelligence analysis. Competition among intelligence collectors is stupid, counterproductive, and unhealthy. The last thing that we needed was 15 or 16 intelligence agencies competing with one another in the field all trying to recruit and handle the same potential agents or trying to answer the same requirements using the same tools and methods. This is not a new issue. In fact it has always been a problem among US agencies. I do not believe that it has been solved by the implementation of the new law.

The US wisely established one civilian agency, the CIA, and deliberately designed it to be outside the control of any policy agency to do nothing but collect intelligence. Like any other collection of people, it has had its ups and downs, its failures and its successes. But it has one inherent strength: It is free to state what it believes to be true regardless of budget considerations. It does not and will not change its reporting, for example, because an ambassador wants to portray the country he is assigned to in a certain light. It did not increase its reporting on Soviet missile production during the Cold War to please the Air Force, for example. This fact frequently makes life difficult for CIA case officers and analysts. There is nothing more discouraging than being berated by the secretary of state or attorney general or some four-star general because one has told the truth as one sees it. I know this from firsthand experience on more than one occasion. But it is the reason the agency exists and it is in the best interest of the public that this civilian approach separated from the policy agencies remain a central part of the US intelligence system.

MJ: What will be harder to fix?

WM: The harder thing to fix is the Department of Homeland Security. The Constitution doesn’t say the federal agencies must share information with one another. They all resist any change in their own prerogatives, authorities, turf. They refuse to make the accommodations and changes necessary to be able to interface effectively and efficiently with one another.

In the case of DHS there is a double problem of trying to bring together 22 formerly independent agencies under one head and then speaking as one voice to other parts of federal government and to the state, local, and tribal governments and agencies. I doubt DHS will ever work any more than the huge state agencies like Gosplan in the former Soviet Union ever worked. For one thing we do not even have an agreed definition of what constitutes “domestic intelligence.” How can we expect the FBI to do “domestic collection” when we cannot even agree what that is or what we want that agency to do? How can we expect DHS to move that intelligence to the state and local level when we have yet to figure out what we want moved?

It is easy to point to intelligence collected outside the US on a non-US person who presents a threat and is travelling to the US as something that needs to be shared. It is far more difficult to deal with what the UK is already dealing with, more than 1200 “suspects” in the UK. These are not foreigners but residents of the UK. The NYPD has made an excellent start on a model for the rest of the US, but without clearer definitions of what the target is and what is and is not legal from the new administration, it will be very difficult to improve on what currently exists at the federal level. This problem should be the subject of a very robust public debate that includes not just lawyers or federal bureaucrats but a wide spectrum of the public including academics, the law enforcement community, legal specialists, the civil rights community, and representatives of ethnic and minority communities. We need a solution in which the US public has had an opportunity to be educated on the issue, to make its various views known, and has a stake in its resolution.

Note: These are Murray’s own views and do not represent the views of any organization.


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