The Failure of U.S. Intelligence

The question is not what went wrong, but what didn't.

A John Le Carré character once dismissed spies as "a squalid procession of vain fools." In a somewhat more charitable mood, the author wrote that "it's easy to forget what intelligence consists of: luck and speculation. Here and there a windfall, here and there a scoop." Well, it's been a long time since U.S. intelligence has had any windfalls or scoops to crow about. Indeed, it has been decades since American intelligence was last under so dark a cloud. One would have to go back to Pearl Harbor or the Bay of Pigs or the shocking congressional investigations of the mid '70s that revealed domestic surveillance, assassination plots, mind-control experiments, and an intelligence apparatus out of control.

But not even those dire times compare to today's double whammy: the catastrophic failure to imagine, much less thwart, the attacks of 9-11, and the epochal embarrassment on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Taken together, they are without precedent. The causes appear bewilderingly complex, unfit for a nation used to answers that fit neatly in the palm of the hand like a PDA. There is no single villain, no one political party, no lone agency, upon which so much misery may be hung. Nor is there any quick fix, notwithstanding the government's illusory efforts at reform—the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, another terrorist-threat assessment center, another commission.

But history now offers a unique window in which to critically examine the intelligence community and to make bold changes. From within and from without, the official wall of silence is finally cracking. First it was former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill exposing the administration's fixation with Iraq even before 9-11. Then came former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke's account of a presidency hell-bent on toppling Saddam and constructing a missile defense shield, even as bin Laden once more targeted the twin towers. Even George Tenet, director of central intelligence, is now proclaiming that he never used the word imminent to describe the threat posed by Iraq. And Democrats, long cowed by fears of appearing unpatriotic, are finally asking the questions they should have raised long before this political season.

illustration: Mirko

The Question: What went wrong? The Answer: everything. Consider five key areas that span the cycle of intelligence: the collection of information, the analysis, the application (how intelligence is used), congressional oversight, and finally, the public debate and discourse sparked by whatever glimpses the public may catch of the process and its product. Weakness anywhere along the chain may spell disaster. Systemic failure at every phase is what we face today.

COLLECTION describes the gathering of information by the "intelligence community," a misnomer referring to some 15 semi-autonomous entities and a budget somewhere near $40 billion. These include the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the intelligence units within the military branches, and others. Overseeing the whole, at least in theory, is George Tenet. It is called a "community" but for years it has been defined by bitter rivalries and the jealous husbanding of information, which, in intelligence, is the sole coin of the realm. Exacerbated by incompatible information systems, divergent cultures, and conflicting missions, these entities often placed parochial advantage above national interests. If nothing else, 9-11 finally exposed to public view the depths of bureaucratic wrangling.

But the intelligence on terrorism and Iraq, both deemed "denied areas" in intelligence parlance, was weak at best. In both realms, one of the keys to collection was the clandestine officer in the field under either embassy cover or non-official cover, known as NOC's. For years the U.S. allowed its "humint" (for human intelligence) to degrade. Its numbers decreased, its quality deteriorated. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many veteran covert operatives declared victory and retired. They were replaced by younger, greener officers. A grizzled pro recalls one new arrival chafing to go with him undercover to the Middle East. He had him smile and saw thousands of dollars' worth of American orthodontics. If you don't mind me taking a mallet and knocking out a few of your teeth, he told the young man, you can join me; otherwise, one smile and you'll get us both killed. The recruit declined the invitation.

It had been years since the U.S. had an embassy in Baghdad or any other platform for gathering intelligence "in-country." Terrorist cells proved even harder to penetrate. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence fell under the swoon of technology—the Boys-and-Their-Toys Syndrome. Increasingly it relied on intercepts, satellite imagery, and questionable forensics instead of spies in the field. Accuracy suffered. In 1998, in retaliation for embassy bombings in Africa, the U.S. sent cruise missiles to wipe out a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, claiming that soil analysis showed precursors to the VX nerve agent. The Agency had no one on the ground to confirm the finding. The plant actually produced drugs, including antimalarial agents, and though the U.S. ultimately settled with the plant owner, it has never admitted error. Indeed, Tenet continues to defend the strike, though privately others concede it was a mistake. (A preemptive assault against a sovereign nation based on nonexistent WMDs. Sound familiar?)

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