The Failure of U.S. Intelligence


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.

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?)

A year later, during the Yugoslav air war, the failure to consult clandestine operatives familiar with Belgrade resulted in the Agency mistakenly having the Chinese embassy bombed, thereby setting back Sino-U.S. relations for years. Other embarrassments included the failure to forecast India’s nuclear tests in 1999 or the progress made by North Korea’s missile program. The clandestine service was viewed as risk-averse and anemic.

Linguistic needs, too, went unfilled, particularly for Arabic and other languages of a region identified as a breeding ground for terrorists. (The richest pool of native speakers — those in the Arab American community — was largely alienated by the U.S.’s post-9-11 crackdown and the spectacle of mass detentions.)

Those entering the clandestine service during the ’80s and ’90s, even as terrorism metastasized — including the first twin towers attack (’93), the bombings of two U.S. embassies (’98), the assault on the destroyer Cole (’00) — were still enslaved to Cold War models. Most covert operatives were based in capitals at U.S. embassies, a carryover from when the Soviets and the U.S. engaged in a form of espionage too easily parodied by Mad magazine’s cartoon Spy vs. Spy. U.S. intelligence clung to the paradigm that terrorism was state-sponsored, a vestige of the days when all mischief was attributed to Moscow or its proxies. The notion that a state could be sponsored by terrorists, as were the Taliban by Al Qaeda, was inconceivable. “The biggest danger is inherited assumptions that get handed down from generation to generation,” Jami Miscik, the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, recently observed.

Nor would such a bias be corrected by those around President Bush. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was an acolyte of just such a world vision, having been trained as a Soviet scholar. On September 11, 2001, she had prepared to deliver a national security speech in which there was to be no mention of Al Qaeda or bin Laden, reflecting the mindset of an administration about to be blindsided.

Meanwhile, the terrorists were in the countryside, not the capitals, recruiting, constructing training camps, and studying how to turn Western technology against itself. It was almost gospel that U.S. operatives could not penetrate terrorist cells, a presumption shaken by the capture of John Walker Lindh, a 20-year-old Californian snared in Afghanistan and known as “the American Taliban.”

Langley’s weaknesses, the unwillingness of Tenet to resist political pressures, and the predilection for invading Iraq — finishing the job, in the parlance of some hawks — fused with all too familiar results. Without an embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. became overly reliant on Iraqi exiles and minorities who had vested interests in exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam and in spurring America to depose him, thereby greasing their own futures. (Journalists like The New York Times‘ Judith Miller also fell under their sway, trumpeting Saddam’s forbidden arsenal.)

As for terrorism, there was a certain smugness at Langley. Tenet, while identifying Al Qaeda as a threat, hinted to Congress only months before 9-11 that bin Laden was beleaguered by the CIA and absorbed in self-preservation. Until the morning of the attacks, the CIA’s “elite” Counterterrorist Center could still proudly invoke its slogan, “to preempt, disrupt, and defeat terrorists.” At the White House, security adviser Rice remembered reading some reference to sleeper cells in the U.S., but not whether she discussed the matter with the president. The Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Within the United States” but was not a warning, only a “historical” assessment, Rice told the 9-11 Commission last week. “No one could have imagined using planes as missiles,” she said. Wrong.

Even after 9-11 and the bogus reports of WMDs, the intelligence community and the White House did not own up, but blamed others — the budget was too small, the restrictions too great. Among the constraints cited was that of “agency scrub,” which in the aftermath of human rights violations and torture, had required that CIA field operatives get approval from headquarters before recruiting particularly unsavory characters. Agency scrub is now gone. (To go after the rats, say operatives, one must go down into the sewers.) Then there was that noisome ban on assassinations, as if the cruise missiles of 1998 were not aimed at bin Laden’s head. It was not the ban that spared bin Laden but inadequate intelligence. Truth is, when it comes to assassination, the CIA has always been the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The man most targeted for “executive action” would become the longest-serving sovereign in the Western Hemisphere: Fidel Castro. Then too there were all those sticky civil liberties and privacy concerns that got in the way.

Bush’s security adviser Rice places the fault with “structural and legal impediments” that prevented the CIA and FBI from working together, and hints that America’s “allergy” to domestic spying was also to blame. Accountability has never beenthe Agency’s strong suit, and presidential deniability — plausible or otherwise — hardly began with Bush. John F. Kennedy withdrew critical air support for those sent to overthrow Castro in 1961, then sulked and blamed the Agency for a debacle in which he also played a role. He is even reputed to have said he would like to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.” Historically, on matters of intelligence, the buck stops nowhere.

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.

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.

The intelligence community may relish the freedom it has enjoyed and bristle at any prospect of constraints or public inquiries, but its long-term health depends upon the continued closeness and support of the citizenry it serves. What happened in the mid ’70s was that the intelligence community was judged to have strayed, that its conduct no longer represented the nation’s values. Officials turned on it, slashing its budget and, at least in its view, handcuffing it with innumerable restraints. The nation felt betrayed by the intelligence community, which in turn felt betrayed by the public. Exactly what had the nation thought it was up to all those years? The only way such radical and disruptive swings can be avoided is if the public maintains a proximity to events and robustly expresses its interest through its proxies — the president, Congress, and its oversight committees — to ensure that both its will and its reservations are honored by the intelligence community.