Review: Burn Before Reading–Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence (Hardcover)

4 Star, Intelligence (Government/Secret)

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4.0 out of 5 stars Useful to Congress, a President, or a Future DCI,

September 28, 2005
Stansfield Turner
This is a useful retrospective by Admiral Stansfield Turner, Director of Central Intelligence under President Jimmy Carter, but it is most useful if you are a Member of Congress, a sitting or future President, or perhaps being considered as a future DCI. For the general public, and even for intelligence professionals, this is an interesting personal recollection and evaluation that reflects a limited appreciation for the broader literature on intelligence reform and is less likely to be exciting to those seeking to understand the minutia of intelligence.

It could be very useful to the public under one condition or rather one hope: that the public react to this book as I did, to wit, the author may not have intended this, but his superb tour of the relations between Presidents and Directors of Central (or in today’s terms, National) Intelligence has persuaded me that our national intelligence community must be removed from the Executive Branch. We need a new hybrid national intelligence community in which the Director is simultaneously responsive to the President, to Governors, to Congress, and to the public. It’s budget must be set as a fraction of the total disposable budget of the federal government, on the order of 1%. This agency must be completely impervious to Executive or Congressional abuse, and must act as a national objective source of truth upon which to discuss policy and acqusition and liaison options. A national board of overseers could be comprised of former Presidents, former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former Leaders of the House and Senate, as well as selected representatives of the public. Intelligence is now too important to be subject to the whims of politics. Intelligence is the revolutionary source of wealth as well as conflict resolution, and this author has made it clear that most Presidents simply cannot be trusted to either manage it or listen to it with wisdom. I would go so far as to suggest that national science and education also require a similar form of hybrid oversight and management. This is not to say that each Executive agency should not have its own intelligence and information operations (I2O) capabilities and functions, only that intelligence and science, like justice, need a court of last resort that cannot be undermined by ideology and personality.

This suggestion is probably too radical, BUT there is one opening for a first step: the DNI should recommend to the President and to Congress that the new planned Open Source Agency integrate the Library of Congress and be the first new hybrid organization, with the Director appointed for life, as are Supreme Court Justices.

The author has done an excellent job, albeit with some obvious gaps and a few errors, in focusing on the relationships between Presidents and Directors of Central Intelligence. However, the book suffers from the author’s understandable but incorrect assumption that national intelligence should remain focused on secrets by, of, and for the President. In fact, not only is most intelligence today from open sources of information, but finished intelligence is a small fraction of Information Operations (IO), that larger matrix of all operational, logistics, geospatial, and other information (including information from non-governmental organizations, universities, and corporations as well as religions and labor unions), and thus the author’s perspective and recommendations, while valuable, are relevant only to 10% of the challenge facing DNI John Negroponte and DDNI Mike Hayden.

A few notes from the margins:

The author’s largely cursory review of past reform efforts completely ignores the earnest efforts of Senator Boren and Congressman McCurdy with the National Security Act of 1992. That Act was undone by Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, and Senator John Warner, then ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The author does correctly note that all of the recommendations of the Aspin-Brown Commission, a device used by Senator Warner to delay and stop reform, have not yet been implemented.

The author is incorrect when he credits Tenet with focusing on the operational side of the CIA, and for focusing on global coverage. In fact, Tenet appointed a White House mess buddy to be DDO, James Pavitt screwed up for seven years, and then Tenet has the temerity to tell the 9-11 Commission that he needed seven more years to get it right. Tenet also commissioned and then refused to follow the recommendations of a report called “The Challenge of Global Coverage,” where Keith Hall, then Director of the National Reconnaissance Agency, among others, told Tenet directly that with the secret world’s obession on seven hard targets, it desperately needed an insurance policy on the order of $10M a year for each of 150 countries or topics including terrorism and disease. Tenet is reported by one present to have said “we are in the business of secrets, speak no more of this report.”

The author is politically correct but wrong to give the recent intelligence reform legislation a qualified “yes” when asking it makes us safer. It does not. The lead article in the Fall issue of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, by Michael Turner, is absolutely on target when it calls the legislation a loss for the American people and the widows and orphans of 9-11, and a victory for entrenched interests including Congressional pork rolling in Virginia.

The author is completely correct to suggest that “CIA” is an acronym ready for retirement. As I suggested in my first book, ON INTELLIGENCE (with a Foreword by Senator David Boren), CIA needs to be come the National Analysis Agency, and be stripped of its S&T and clandestine functions. [NSA needs to become the National Processing Agency–Washington is operating on 2% of the relevant information, and most of it is not online.]

There are two important recurring themes across the book that the author is extraordinarily qualified to address. The first is the long-term political, social, economic, and cultural costs of “covert actions” including assassinations, coups, and other nefarious interventions in foreign affairs. The second is the extremely negative impact on national intelligence of military ownership of three “national” agencies. He points out that we missed the Indian nuclear developments in part because the Department of Defense was demanding that all the satellite capabilities be focused on Iraq, and through ownership, was able to enforce its demands and neglect national priorities.

The author praises George Bush the First as a model President and director, and seems to hint that the son would do well to follow his father’s active engagement. The author is brutal about Casey, suggesting (to this reader) that not until Karl Rove has there been a more negative employment of government assets for political advantage. The author is subtly critical of Henry Kissinger, calls Woolsey’s tenure a lost opportunity to redirect CIA, and has many other insights that can only come from a DCI, about other DCIs. Overall this is a good read for anyone who cares deeply about the health and nuances of U.S. intelligence.

The book loses one star for gaps here and there. The sources used are very limited–in the critical Viet-Nam era, for example, the author does not cite George Allen’s “NONE SO BLIND,” and he does not mention at least 15 other retrospective books on intelligence that would have added substantially to his endeavor, which seeks to end with recommendations for the DNI and future reform legislation that remains needed.

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