What Our Intelligence Agencies Could Learn from Silicon Valley

June 17, 2010

The failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks led three years later to the Intelligence Reform Act, which decreed a reorganization of the nation’s intelligence system. Government reorganizations are a common response to government failures (we’re seeing it again, in the financial regulatory reform legislation now wending its way through Congress).

They are quick, highly visible, easily explained, and relatively cheap—and ineffective when the failures that beget them are not failures of institutional design. That’s the case with regard to financial reform: The nations of the world organize their monetary and fiscal agencies in very different ways, and there is no evidence that any organizational form was more successful than any other in anticipating or responding to the financial collapse of September 2008. The problem was not institutional design, but execution.

We need a Director of National Intelligence who is not the president’s senior intelligence adviser—that is the role of the CIA’s director. The DNI’s role is rightly that of a chairman focused on such urgent tasks as modernizing the intelligence system’s many computer networks (and enabling them to communicate with each other), establishing uniform standards for security clearances, and pushing for a coherent organization of domestic intelligence.

These are tasks wholly unlike briefing the president on North Korea’s belligerent intentions. They call for the skills of a top manager, ideally perhaps a former intelligence officer who had gone on to manage a knowledge-generating institution in the private sector.

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