Are our intelligence agencies paying too much attention to Al-Qaeda?
That question was the subject of a secret White House report produced last year that raised the alarm about holes in our intelligence capabilities brought about by more than a decade of war and counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda.
The findings by the President's Intelligence Advisory Board may signal a turning point in the terrorism fight. The document was distributed to senior national security officials at the White House whose public remarks in recent weeks suggest that they share some of the panel's concerns.
John O. Brennan, Obama's former top counterterrorism adviser, who was sworn in as CIA director this month, told Congress in February that he planned to evaluate the "allocation of mission" at the agency. He described the scope of CIA involvement in lethal operations as an "aberration from its traditional role."
U.S. intelligence officials cautioned that any course adjustments are likely to be more incremental than wholesale. One reason is continued concern about the al-Qaeda threat. But another is the influence accumulated by counterterrorism institutions such as the CIA's Counterterrorism Center as they have expanded over the past decade.
Even Brennan made it clear that the CIA will not relinquish its fleet of armed drones, saying in written answers submitted to lawmakers as part of his confirmation that the agency had a long paramilitary history and "must continue to be able to provide the president with this option."
Still, the advisory board's previously undisclosed report reflects a broader concern about central aspects of the way counterterrorism operations are being prosecuted nearly 12 years after they began.
Last year, Brennan led a multi-agency effort to impose tighter rules on the targeted killing of terrorism suspects overseas. In recent weeks, the administration has been forced to disclose details about the legal basis for drone strikes on U.S. citizens abroad amid an uproar in Congress over the secrecy surrounding such decisions.
The White House also is weighing whether to give the Defense Department more control over the drone campaign and reduce the CIA's role, although officials said the change could take years and probably would not involve CIA drone operations in Pakistan.
Several members of the panel expressed concern that the traditional role of intelligence agencies has been co-opted by military necessity. Instead of gathering and analyzing intelligence, our intel agencies have been geared to what former Senator David Boren refers to as "military support." There is a concern that this has left holes in our ability to monitor countries like China and North Korea, who pose a long term threat to the US.
President Obama is taking the step of removing responsibility for drone strikes from the CIA and giving it to the Pentagon, although the CIA will apparently continue to run their drone operations in Pakistan. This reflects a more traditional view of the separation between the military and CIA, whose paramilitary operations have vastly expanded since 9/11.
Al-Qaeda is not the terrorist group it once was. But its various franchises and offshoots - especially in North Africa - still pose a significant threat to American interests, if not America herself. It would seem prudent to keep an eye on AQ while acknowledging there are other threats in the world that need our attention. In an age of shrinking budgets and a deliberate pulling away by the US from the rest of the world, let's hope the policymakers get it right and don't drop the ball and watch as another mass casualty attack kills a lot of Americans.