The current flap over the CIA’s intelligence failures is a perfect illustration of how things work in Washington: If you have a problem and there is a folder on the desk clearly labeled “Solution to the Problem,” people will look for that solution under the desk, behind the desk, down the hall, up the street, and over the hill. Only when they have exhausted all possibilities will they even consider opening the folder in front of them. Mind you, they won’t actually do it. They will form a commission to study whether opening the folder might be helpful–and even this only after fighting for a while over the commission’s scope and, more importantly, who gets to serve on it.
Well, it keeps people busy and holds down the unemployment rate. And it makes for some terrific lunches and dinner parties. But of course it postpones actually solving the problem until long after everyone has forgotten about it–which, in Washington, usually is the point.
But the CIA’s failures are much too serious for business-as-usual. The CIA is to the president what radar is to the captain of a 747–it’s the management tool that enables him to see things up ahead before they otherwise would be visible; to see looming dangers early enough to avoid them and thus to set a safe course toward his destination.
Since President Bush took office in January 2001, he’s been flying with, so to speak, a busted radar. The 9/11 attacks were, by definition, the worst intelligence failure in our country’s history. Since then, the CIA has failed time and again to alert the president to what lay ahead: The mess over whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is only the most obvious failure. In the long run-up to our attack on Baghdad–when every retired two-star general was on television outlining our war strategy–the CIA failed to alert the president to Saddam Hussein’s war strategy; namely, that he would abandon the battlefield early on to launch a deadly, guerilla-type insurgency. That caught us by surprise, and we are still paying the price. And when our troops took control on the ground, we were surprised by the appalling state of Iraq’s physical infrastructure–its power grids, water supply, oil pipelines, and pumping stations. We should have known this sooner. And it’s obvious we were caught off guard by the Shiites’ edgy, not-as-grateful-as-we-hoped response to our liberation of their country.
We’re at war, and we’re in trouble. A cascading series of intelligence failures like these–and probably a few we don’t yet know about–quite literally threatens our country’s survival. It means we haven’t got time for the usual games, the usual commissions and their endless tussles over their “scope” and their access, or their lack thereof, to the classified documents they think they need to write their reports. So if what I say here is too blunt, too impolite, or too impolitic–too bad.
The problem with the CIA is that the senior executives responsible for production of intelligence just aren’t good enough. They are like mediocre pilots who can manage to get their planes from one airport to another when the weather is clear and the skies empty–but who are simply out of their depth when the weather is turbulent and the skies crowded, and who are too frightened to admit it, and to get the hell out of the cockpit and make way for better pilots until the storm passes, for fear of losing their jobs.
That’s it. That’s the problem with the CIA right now, and every serious student of intelligence knows it. There is nothing to study. And reorganizing the CIA, or establishing some sort of national director of intelligence to oversee the alphabet soup of agencies that comprise our country’s intelligence service, won’t make a bit of difference.
Intelligence is like science; it isn’t org charts, it’s people. You want to find a cure for cancer? Hire the most brilliant scientists you can, and find one even more brilliant–a Nobel laureate, for instance–to manage them. They will know how to organize themselves, what equipment to buy, which research projects to back and which to stop. In short, they will have the judgment to do what they have been hired to do. Sure they will fail from time to time. And only rarely will they succeed as quickly as you want. The only thing you can count on, is that they will succeed more often, and more quickly, then any group of average researchers.
It’s the same with Intelligence. Get the most brilliant analysts you can, find someone even more brilliant to manage them–and you have a CIA that’s razor-sharp and playing offense. We used to have a CIA like this, under directors including Allen Dulles, John McCone, and William J. Casey. This was the formula, and it worked. It’s the only formula that ever works, and it can work now for President Bush.
Kicking this can down the road beyond November’s elections is a mistake, perhaps a bigger mistake than the president or his advisers realize. For as bad as the CIA’s series of failures may be, a business-as-usual response to them will hand our adversaries a piece of intelligence more valuable than any their spies could ever steal: the knowledge that for the next several months at least, the world’s greatest superpower will be flying blind.
–Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan administration as a special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. His video presentation, The Siege of Western Civilization, has just been released.