If there was one thing John Edwards wanted to make clear about his newly unveiled counterterrorism plan, it’s that it was “bold.”
“We needed new thinking and a bold vision to protect the world for our children,” said Mr. Edwards, after conjuring the imagery of Sept. 11 during an address given at Pace University on Sept. 7. He added, “We’ve got to throw away the failed George Bush policies of the past and move boldly in a completely new direction.” And, “We need a bold new approach.” And, “It’s the right time for a bold new direction.” And, “We have overcome great foes in the past and we will do so again … through courage, bold new ideas and strength.”
Mr. Edwards is staking his candidacy on the notion that, more than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, he is a catalyst for change. His latest effort to demonstrate his break with the status quo is through a counterterrorism proposal that calls for a multilateral intelligence-sharing body called the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Treaty Organization (CITO).
The Edwards campaign argues that the multilateral body would improve America’s standing in the world, rallying allies around the common fight against terrorism while shaming rogue nations that refuse to participate. The arrangement would benefit weaker nations by providing access to American technology while allowing U.S. agencies to get at better human intelligence. And so-called “allied response cells” would have the capacity to strike terrorist groups in any continent, country or city where terrorists lurk.
Mr. Edward’s proposal, the linchpin of his plan to fight terrorism, is definitely daring. But whether it’s realistic is a matter of some debate.
“The initial reaction of most intelligence professionals is going to be that this is just one more bureaucracy to add to the already sprawling number of bureaucracies that we have to feed and take care of, and how much of a real payback is there going to be?” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. agent and a counterterrorism scholar at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. “You’ll find a lot of reluctance amongst intelligence professionals. Politicians will probably be quick to embrace it because it has a timely quality—seems to have a silver bullet solution, but it would be very difficult to get to work in practice.”
“It’s a pipe dream,” said Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. agent and the author of several books on American espionage, including See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism. “I just don’t ever see it happening.”
The problems with CITO cited repeatedly in interviews by former agents and intelligence experts are numerous and, they say, insurmountable: The greater number of countries sharing intelligence would make each participant less likely to share; the often highly politicized intelligence services of foreign countries, especially in Europe, would make cooperation even more complicated; and above all, the new arrangement would result in paralyzing bureaucracy.
“Great, one more,” said S. Eugene Poteat, president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, a nonpartisan group of retired C.I.A. agents and officials, when told of Mr. Edwards’ plan. He said that approaching countries on a case-by-case basis was a much more effective way to share and receive quality, actionable intelligence, especially because with larger organizations you “tend to get more leaks.”
Mr. Edwards, who sat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, argues that international terrorism had changed the existing calculus in the intelligence community.
“It’s certainly the case that intelligence-sharing and cooperating is difficult, but it goes on all the time and has for decades when countries find it in their interest,” said Barry Blechman, an Edwards adviser and member of the Department of Defense Policy Board. But in the age of international terrorism and the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction, there now exists a “threat that unites almost all countries,” Mr. Blechman said.
Mr. Edwards himself acknowledged in his Pace University speech that “CITO is not a panacea,” and to underscore the point that the organization would take time to develop, he quoted John F. Kennedy call for a ban on nuclear weapon tests by saying a “journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
Still, some critics said the organization nevertheless was likely to do more harm than good.
“There are plenty of organizations involved in sharing intelligence, and adding another layer is probably not going to help, it’s probably going to make more bureaucratic noise,” said Gary Schmitt, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who was a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and executive director of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under President Ronald Reagan. “And the truth is that the most valuable intelligence just simply isn’t going to be shared in that forum.”
While the United States has enjoyed fruitful intelligence-sharing in bilateral channels with countries such as Great Britain, Israel and Jordan—and recent arrests of extremists in Germany resulted from bilateral intelligence-sharing—multilateral treaties, many intelligence professionals say, only complicate matters.
“There are enormous practical problems and where it has been tried so far—most notably in NATO—it is going at a very, very slow rate,” said Mr. Riedel, who also served as the special adviser to NATO’s Terrorism Threat Intelligence Unit between 2003 and 2006. “It’s an intriguing proposal,” he said of the Edwards plan. “But there are really serious obstacles.”
Another area for concern, they said, is a CITO provision for allied response cells consisting of security and intelligence professionals from member nations to respond to specific threats across multiple countries.
“Sharing information is one thing, but response teams?” said a NATO official speaking on background because he would not comment about issues affecting the American presidential election. “Now it’s starting to sound like a Tom Clancy novel.”
Michael Signer, Mr. Edwards’ deputy policy director for foreign affairs and national security, emphasized that CITO was meant as a complement, not a replacement, to the existing institutions governing international affairs.
“It’s not an organization that is solving everything for all time,” Mr. Signer said.
To argue that CITO will be different, the Edwards campaign echoes the Monday Night Football terrorism-speak of Rudy Giuliani when it says the new organization will “put terrorism on the defensive.” CITO, the campaign says, will be more focused on intelligence than NATO is, more efficient than the United Nations and more diplomatically and politically savvy than Interpol.
“The key here to CITO is that this is a bold, new, innovative idea to bring together things that have not been well coordinated up to the present,” Gordon Adams, a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Edwards and a former national security official in the Clinton administration, said in a Sept. 10 conference call with reporters.
Mr. Blechman stressed that the group would never compel the United States to give up high-level intelligence that would endanger any source, and said most of the sharing would be of communications intercepts that could help further the investigations of foreign agencies looking for the same suspects. Edwards’ speech called for CITO members to “voluntarily share financial, police, customs and immigration intelligence.”
And although Mr. Edwards made it clear in the same speech he would be willing to act unilaterally against terrorists—“I want to be clear about one thing: If we have actionable intelligence about imminent terrorist activity and the Pakistan government refuses to act, we will,” he said–his antiterrorism organization seems expressly designed to reassure the multilateralists in his party.
“National sovereignty will be a central premise of CITO,” says a fact sheet about the program distributed to reporters. “CITO will never sanction an operation without the consent of a host state.”
“It’s a great idea on paper,” said Mr. Baer, who said that when he was working as a C.I.A. agent in the Middle East, he would have loved to have had access to Israeli files. “It’s not going to happen.”
The Edwards campaign says that is just the sort of stuck-in-the-mud thinking of the past that it is looking to break away from.
“Whenever there is a new idea, you are going to get people in established agencies finding all the problems with it,” said Mr. Blechman. “When we came up with the idea of NATO there were all sorts of resistance to it from established organizations and governments.”
Mr. Edwards, he said, was “trying to think creatively.”