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Altering the Deal: Explaining Variation in U.S. Intelligence Reform Open Access

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Since the formalization of intelligence as a standalone function of the U.S. government in 1947, there have been dozens of reform efforts. These efforts have produced a variety of outcomes; although most failed to produce any changes, some made superficial changes, and a small handful had drastic impacts on how the government organizes for and generates intelligence. This research is intended to answer this question: Why do some intelligence-reform efforts result in change but others fail? The vast majority of the established literature on this topic either lacks a theoretical basis or relies upon a status quo preference to explain the variation.Most work on intelligence reform places failure squarely on bureaucratic intransigence. Intelligence agencies prefer the status quo and can prevent change by holding an overwhelming information advantage. Yet information advantage is not fixed. Reformers can shift informational asymmetries to their favor through the apt design of the reform itself. Reformers that generate new solutions rather than simply recycle solutions, impose new definitions and terminology rather than use the intelligence agencies own jargon, or talk about systemic issues rather than specific actions of the intelligence agencies nullify the information advantage. When reformers take on two or more of these approaches, the information advantage shifts to their advantage at the expense of the intelligence agencies. When that happens, reformers can push reform through and create change. The examples of the Rockefeller Commission, the Halloween Day Massacre, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) all reflect this dynamic. Failures of reform, such as the Maxwell Commission and the Church Committee’s work on electronic surveillance, reflect reformers not taking on these approaches and leaving the information advantage to the intelligence agencies. Put simply, reformers that shift the dialogue of the reform by imposing new definitions, propose new solutions, or examine the problems in broader contexts rather than individual actions, strip the tool of information advantage away from intelligence organizations, producing actual reform.

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