The Failure of U.S. Intelligence

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

Even when actionable intelligence was in hand, it was ignored or unappreciated. The foot-dragging that the FBI's Coleen Rowley observed regarding the flight training given suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui was true across the board. Alert agents suffered napping supervisors. And always there were the turf wars between agencies where information is power and its dissemination seen as self-diluting. Tenet's inability to rule the intelligence empire, to integrate missions, is hardly new. In the late '70s, Admiral Stansfield Turner, then the CIA chief, asked Admiral Bobby Inman of the National Security Agency for the location of Soviet nuclear subs. Inman refused—without consequence. Tenet, too, is director largely in name only, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputies, intent on bringing down Saddam, made clear in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. In matters of intelligence, it is a fine line between service and servitude, and Tenet's longevity may reflect both.

Which brings us to ANALYSIS. Despite investigative hearings and panels, neither the press nor the public has any real idea what transpired within the analytical ranks of Langley—what pressures analysts were subject to, what the intent or impact was of Vice President Dick Cheney's frequent visits to CIA headquarters, or what analyses were deleted or shaded in favor of those which confirmed the administration's bias. After the WMD debacle in Iraq, Tenet forcefully argued that the Agency telegraphed its uncertainties to the administration. What Tenet does not mention is the impact of his sitting squarely behind Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5, 2003, as Powell delivered to the United Nations Security Council the singularly unambiguous case for Iraq's vast arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. Hearing Tenet's belated references to nuanced analysis reminds one that he heads an agency consecrated to the art of deception, whose headquarters features the scriptural quotation that "the truth shall make you free."

As far as APPLICATION went, even the thinnest of intelligence showed up in the most prominent of places. Determined to rally the country to the cause of war against Iraq, Bush, in his State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, spoke of Iraq's program to build nuclear weapons, citing its purchase of yellowcake uranium from Niger. Only after Ambassador Joseph Wilson, dispatched to investigate the report, publicly shot it down, did Tenet apologize for allowing inaccurate information to be cited by the president. Of course, challenging the administration's massaging of intelligence can be costly. Witness the outing of Wilson's wife, a CIA covert operative who worked on proliferation issues.

illustration: Mirko

Several veteran CIA officers worry that both collection and analysis were cherry-picked by an administration that viewed the process not as an independent and formative tool of policy making but as an evidentiary makeweight to win over the skeptical and faint of heart.

And what of OVERSIGHT, the fourth stage of the cycle? What is clear is that those charged with overseeing the CIA—the White House, the House and Senate committees, the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board—have been largely AWOL, abdicating their oversight role. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is headed by Florida Republican Porter Goss, a former CIA operative. He has long been an unabashed cheerleader for the Agency. The Senate Intelligence Committee has also been markedly squeamish about criticizing Tenet. In his earlier life he was the senior staffer on that committee, and the old-boy network continues to show deference. The White House will be the last to go after the intelligence community. After all, the Agency has done nothing to impede the administration's agenda. Besides, CIA headquarters is named for the president's father, one of Langley's most popular former directors. With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, and the Democrats long in disarray and too timid to challenge the Bush juggernaut, the intelligence community has had little to worry about, except, of course, the world.

In such circumstances, finally, only THE PUBLIC has the ability to shake the oversight committees out of their stupor. In matters of intelligence, citizens are the too often forgotten court of last resort, their discourse and debate the last defense against excess, abuse, chicanery, and gross ineptitude. True, intelligence affairs are steeped in secrecy and nuance, but there was nothing secret or subtle about the attacks of 9-11 and the fiasco surrounding Iraq's WMDs. In the aftermath of 9-11, many Americans, understandably, were preoccupied with security. How that was to be achieved seemed of little importance. Their silence was rightly or wrongly interpreted by the oversight committees and the intelligence community as a license to do what they pleased.

What was once unthinkable now barely raises an eyebrow. Consider what is antiseptically called "rendition," in which those captured or arrested are handed over to foreign intelligence services or police, from whom they may be subjected to the sort of barbarism that Americans have long believed separated them from the enemy. If "torture light" was required to produce a confession or a lead, so be it. (Tell that to Maher Arar, a Canadian who attempted to change planes in New York and, though never charged with a crime, ended up in a Syrian prison for a year, all courtesy of U.S. authorities.) Nor has there been any serious questioning of the CIA's use of Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles, which have killed individuals who have been neither indicted nor convicted of any crimes, but who were merely suspects or traveling with suspects. Such actions warrant public debate. How we conduct ourselves, even in war—especially in war—is a measure of who we are as a people. We cannot shed moral liability through some fiction of offshore morality, nor defend or promote democracy through means noxious to it.

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