Ex-Microsoft COO: Overhaul means crushing intelligence 'fiefdoms'

Cultural fiefdoms at various intelligence agencies have grown large and powerful, according to Bob Herbold, retired chief...

Cultural fiefdoms at various intelligence agencies have grown large and powerful, according to Bob Herbold, retired chief operating officer at Microsoft, and the US intelligence community has "effectively missed the information and communications revolution of the 1990s".

According to Herbold, the 9/11 Commission and the US Congress - both of which have called for a major overhaul of the US intelligence community to help improve information sharing - are up against a formidable enemy. 

Herbold recently completed a book about the topic called The Fiefdom Syndrome. 

"Fiefdoms emerge when individuals and groups seek to make themselves as independent as possible and work to protect their turf and reshape their environment to gain as much control over it as is possible," he said.

"This behaviour stems from the inclination of individuals and groups to become fixated on their own activities, their own careers, their own territory or turf to the detriment of those around them."

Those who create fiefdoms become dangerously insular, losing perspective and awareness of what is happening in the world outside of their own control. "They lose their ability to act consistently on behalf of the greater good, and they are determined to do things their own way, often duplicating or complicating what should be done organisation-wide," he said. 

Such cultural issues mean the 9/11 Commission and its backers are likely to fail or at best only partially succeed in fostering real reform, according to Herbold. He sees indications that this is happening already. 

"President Bush quickly asked Congress to appoint a national intelligence director, but without any authority to hire, fire and set budgets of the individual intelligence fiefdoms," he said.

But the current intelligence community fiefdoms are likely to remain secure, knowing that there will be numerous committees and subcommittees, all of which have authority over homeland security, fighting to protect their fiefdoms. 

Two recent government reports shed light on the problem. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector-general this month issued a report concluding that the agency's CIO does not have the political clout needed to pull together an enterprise architecture integrating the IT systems of the 22 agencies within the DHS. 

And a separate report by the Government Accountability Office found that the DHS is still struggling to put together a plan to pull together its IT assets. 

With those issues in mind, a series of congressional hearings this week focused on how major organisational changes to the nation's intelligent community might work.

Dan Verton writes for Computerworld

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