Edwards’ Controversial Spy Plan

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.

Edwards’ Controversial Spy Plan