If the Senate Intelligence Committee has its way, the Senate will in the spring vote the most important reform of the U.S. intelligence establishment since the Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947.
Under proposals to be introduced by the majority and minority leaders of the committee, David L. Boren (D.-Okla.) and Frank H. Murkowski (R.-Alaska), a new top intelligence executive would be named, serving outside and above the existing agencies, setting goals for them. He or she would be expected to coordinate and supervise the intelligence assessments made by CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office (which runs satellites), without being beholden to any one of these agencies.
The House Intelligence Committee's leaders say similar legislation will be introduced by them, although the White House declares itself opposed to change.
The main criticism of the present system made by the Senate committee is that U.S. intelligence characteristically produces bland, non-incisive assessments, blunted and bureaucratized by the internal power struggles and precautions-taking of the intelligence agencies. Independent thought is systematically removed. The intelligence product, in short, serves intelligence-agency internal interests more than it does the national interest.
This is an old complaint. Independent thought and bureaucracies do not get along very well together, for reasons which anyone with experience will recognize. Organizations function either by dictation from above or by compromises from below accommodating the rival powers and interests at work inside the organization.
In neither case is independent thought welcome -- unless it is the independent thought of the man on top. But that too makes trouble by uniting the ranks below to resist and cast the leader out.
It also is dangerous in intelligence matters since the top man's thought can be imposed as the institution's official opinion, untempered by criticism. Consider the case of William Casey, President Reagan's CIA chief, who was certainly an independent thinker -- and an irresponsible one, with paranoid political views, interested in setting up, on the Reagan Administration's behalf, an autonomously financed clandestine agency outside the U.S. government's control.
Within bureaucracies, independent thought succeeds mainly when it is made the vehicle of the struggle of one organizational faction against another, or when it provides the rationale for a bureaucratic power center to do what it wanted to do anyway but for which it had not found a politically acceptable rationale.
Thus intelligence assessments postulating high Soviet military capacities have in the past been indispensable to the Defense Department and defense industry. Low estimates have suited the Treasury, a White House with budget problems, or those administrations with ambitions for detente.
There is a sound general rule that fits more than the world of government intelligence. It is that one should assume that the conventional wisdom, what "everybody knows," is always wrong. There are practical reasons why it is wrong. The conventional wisdom is the judgment reached by the majority of those concerned with a given matter after a long period of debate and consideration. It therefore is a compromise, out of date, and embodies the life-work or career-commitments of the senior people involved, who have acquired a powerful interest in suppressing challenges.
The specific problems presented by bureaucratic intelligence analysis are the pressures to be (1) useful, (2) in support of past organizational and political commitments ("on the team"), and (3) ideologically or politically "correct."
Thus do not tell a Nixon or Carter administration engaged in making the Shah of Iran policeman of the Persian Gulf that reactionary religious leaders are going to overthrow him. Don't tell a Bush Administration set on sponsoring Saddam Hussein as a leading Arab "moderate" that the Iraqi president is about to invade Kuwait.
Don't tell the U.S. Army and Air Force that they are going to lose a war in Vietnam to "little men in black pajamas." Certainly don't tell them -- at least during the five months leading up to January 15 of this year -- that they might have a bigger problem on their hands than they think in getting Iraq out of Kuwait.
There is no fundamental solution to such problems in the kind of bureaucratic reorganization the congressional intelligence committees propose. Possibly the most useful thing that can be done is to institutionalize, even require, recorded dissents to intelligence assessments.
The "B-Team" assessment should be built into the system. Every appraisal that emerges from an agency's internal review process should be accompanied by dissenting opinions prepared by any analyst who feels strongly enough to make use of this opportunity. There should be a recognized and respected mechanism for an analyst, as Senator Boren puts it, to stick his neck out -- without having his career chopped off.
This will make life harder for those who use the intelligence product and want "facts," not arguments. It would require them to think and ask questions, which is not a bad thing. It would make the people who are elected to make great public decisions assume the responsibility for being wrong. But it might also give them better odds on being right.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.