At the end of November, 1983, Herbert Meyer, vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, wrote an eight-page memorandum to director William Casey entitled “Why is the World so Dangerous?” In it, Meyer summarized the increasing tempo of violence against “the citizens, governments, or interests of the Free World” and listed recent horrors such as the assassination of Philippine leader Benigno Aquino, the slaughter of South Korean leaders on a visit to Burma, the mass murder of American and French marines in Lebanon, and the Libyan invasion of Chad.
The litany of bad news prompted Meyer to a brilliant counterintuitive insight: Much, maybe even all of this was happening because the Soviet leaders knew they were losing. Reagan’s policies had put them at grave risk, and they were desperate to make him stop. By raising the level of violence, and blaming it on the United States, they hoped either to replace Reagan, or to force him to adopt more “moderate” policies, which would give them time to recover.
“Let me concede right now,” Meyer wrote, “that I cannot prove this–if your definition of proof is restricted to intercepts, photographs, and purloined documents.” The professional spy craft of the intelligence community could only take one so far. “One needs to go beyond a listing of facts,” he concluded, “one needs also to make a leap of imagination.”
Thankfully, President Reagan made that crucial imaginative leap. Yet throughout the Reagan years, and right up to the fall of the Soviet empire, the “finished intelligence” from the CIA and the other intelligence agencies failed to detect the tectonic movement Reagan had sensed and the Meyer Memorandum described. The CIA repeatedly proclaimed the Soviet system stable, its economy steadily growing, its global influence massive. Had William Casey and President Reagan based American policy on the assessments of the intelligence community, we would never have had a policy aimed at bringing down the evil empire.
Those leaders now being pressured to “solve” the manifest problems of the intelligence community by making structural changes should heed Herbert Meyer’s words. No effort to “connect the dots” in 1983, or “fuse” multiple sources of information–themes that the 9/11 Commission members repeat ad infinitum–would have revealed the great paradox that the surge in hostile Soviet activity was good news for our side. Meyer’s “imaginative leap” rested on smell and intuition, not piles of intercepts and satellite photos or reports from spies in Moscow. It was the result of independent thinking by a clear thinker who listened to and respected the professionals, but trusted his own judgment and wasn’t afraid to put his name on it. Fittingly, the memorandum was unclassified.
None of the changes so energetically proposed by the 9/11 Commission–and, alas, embraced by both presidential candidates–would have improved our ability to understand the imminent fall of the Soviet Empire; nor, for that matter, would they have saved us from 9/11. Victory in both cases primarily required two things: an intelligence chief who understood what was going on and a president willing to act forcefully to advance our interests. Casey and Reagan comprehended the Soviet crisis, and acted on their understanding.
The terror war was a different matter.
If anything, the intelligence community’s picture of al Qaeda was better than its assessment of the Soviet Union. That is because al Qaeda was only the most recent development in a war that had been waged against us for more than a quarter century. Every president since Jimmy Carter declared war against terrorism, because hundreds of Americans were killed by terrorists. And for 25 years, we had sufficient information to know who the terrorists were, where they trained, and which states supported them. Prior to 9/11, however, no president chose to smite them with the requisite valor and energy. And that is the crux of the matter.
There were certainly intelligence failures, above all those related to the movements of the 9/11 terrorists. But al Qaeda succeeded in 2001, as earlier, primarily because American leaders chose not to fight back. If Bill Clinton had demanded a strategic plan to demolish the terror network–like Reagan’s strategy to dismantle the Soviet empire–and if he’d had the will to act on the inevitably imperfect information available–as Meyer so candidly put it to Casey–we could have delivered many blows to al Qaeda long before Osama’s jihadists acted on American soil. We won the Cold War because we wanted to. We lost thousands of lives on 9/11 because we had not engaged our enemies. It wasn’t so much a failure to connect dots as a failure to see the world plain.
The commission’s recommendations do not address this central issue, because the only real “fix” is beyond bureaucratic stratagem: It is good leadership, and with it, the ruthless imposition of accountability on policy makers, legislators, and intelligence officials. The call for a new intelligence overseer in the executive branch is downright silly. Any CEO of a distressed firm who retained failed managers and simply added new personnel and new organizational boxes would face open rebellion from his board and shareholders. Yet that is what the commission wants to do. Its recommendations finesse or exacerbate the real problems.
Without doubt, our two greatest failures are political, not structural. The first is relentless congressional tinkering with the CIA and FBI, reaching outright caricature on the eve of 9/11–when the FBI could not even clip newspaper articles about advocates of jihad in America, and the CIA needed special permission to contact foreign officials whose human rights violations wouldn’t pass muster at the ACLU. The second is American presidents, secretaries of state, and national-security advisers who cringed from ordering the difficult and risky enterprises needed to dismantle the terror network and threaten the regimes that supported it. The long years of piously drafted guidelines that hobbled our intelligence and law-enforcement services, combined with risk-avoidance at the highest levels, inevitably created the culture of today’s intelligence community: Not a single human agent in Iraq from 1998 on, and no high-level penetration of the leading terrorist organizations. The commission has nothing to say about such matters, and calls for a super-committee in Congress with lifetime tenure for its members. This is a guarantee of failure; the members of such a committee would become de facto officials of the intelligence community instead of independent analysts.
If we really want to improve intelligence, then we should fire the failures, get individuals to take responsibility for analyses, and reward independent thinking. As things stand, “groupthink” is built into the system, not one senior official has been removed, and the commission’s plan will make things worse.