The Senate Intelligence Committee’s damning report on the CIA has, perhaps inadvertently, revealed the biggest intelligence failure of all: the failure of our entire political establishment to take “intelligence” seriously.
After all, the CIA didn’t fall apart overnight. It has been decaying for years. And while a handful of scholars and ex-agency officials struggled mightily to draw attention to the CIA’s decrepitude before any catastrophic failure, no one with responsibility for running our government paid the slightest attention, or did anything about it, until after catastrophe had struck. When President Bush took office, he should have moved fast to bring in new leadership at the CIA. He certainly should have taken action immediately after the 9/11 attacks, and long before the agency’s cascading series of failures involving Iraq. And it would have been a lot more helpful if the Senate Intelligence Committee–whose members, like their counterparts over at the House Intelligence Committee, never shut up about their oversight responsibilities and their constitutional prerogatives–had gotten cracking and published its report in the summer of 2001, rather than in the summer of 2004. When did these geniuses first notice that something was wrong with the CIA? They, too, were asleep at the switch.
Here’s why it matters so much: The CIA is to our government what radar is to the crew of a 747: It’s the instrument they rely upon to spot trouble up ahead, before it’s visible, and in plenty of time to deal with it. In other words, it’s the CIA’s job to project the future, clearly enough and soon enough, so that the president can change the future before it happens.
Never Fly Without Radar
You don’t fly with a broken radar, period. If it malfunctions, you stop whatever you are doing and you get it fixed. Nothing could possibly be more important–especially when you expect to be flying through a lot of turbulence and heavy traffic. Well, our country is at war, and our radar is broken. This means that, even as we digest the recent and forthcoming congressional and independent commission reports about the CIA and ponder their recommendations for long-term changes, we need to do the equivalent of an emergency-repair job. In other words, we need to get the CIA up and running right now.
Here’s how: Our objective should be to push the CIA ahead of the curve on the one overriding issue to our country’s security: the war. So, take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle. On the left side list all those world leaders and governments that genuinely want us to win. On the right side list those who, whatever their public pronouncements and even their private assurances, really want us to lose. (The only rule here is that there is no third category; as the president himself has said, if you aren’t with us on this you are against us.) The list on the left will be very, very short. The list on the right will be long, and will encompass most of our so-called allies including, alas, our neighbors to the north and south. What we need to know is this: What can all these leaders and governments do to hurt us in the coming months, and what are they likely to do?
Today the CIA has neither the analytic nor the operational talent to provide these answers. So we will need to reach out beyond the agency’s high-voltage fence for some help.
For the analytic talent, make a list of our country’s 100 or so smartest, savviest, most experienced geo-political analysts. Of these, roughly 70 are living and working within a ten-mile radius of CIA headquarters (and they know how to contact the other 30). Start working this list and you will find that perhaps 40 simply won’t help, either for political or personal reasons. But the remaining 60 will help–and of these, only one or two prima donnas will need a personal phone call from the president. What we want is their best projection of which world leaders and governments are actively working to trip us up in Iraq and Afghanistan (as opposed to merely hoping we will fail) and–even more–what specific things they are likely to do in the coming months. Five or six of these experts can be given fast-track clearances and actually go to work for the CIA, perhaps on a temporary basis, for instance at the National Intelligence Council. (That’s the top-level unit responsible for producing the National Intelligence Estimates.) Others will prefer to help out informally, for instance by organizing small working groups that will meet in their offices and homes, and then passing along their information and insights in the form of unsigned memos.
Now, you take their projections of potential adverse actions and get the CIA’s two main directorates–intelligence and operations–pointed straight at the targets. Have the Iran people looking at Iran, the Syria people looking there, the West European people looking there, and so forth. Their orders are to sound an alert at the first indication that any leader or government may be about to take one of another of these actions that will make it harder for us to win the war. There are in fact some first-class analysts within the intelligence directorate, but they are mostly younger and not in senior management positions. Reach down to them and make sure their work comes to the surface, and isn’t blocked by the bureaucrats who are sitting above them on the org charts. (President Reagan’s CIA director, William J. Casey, did this all the time, and it drove the bureaucrats insane. I remember one senior official who stormed into the director’s office and told Bill that he didn’t have the right to talk with his subordinates without clearing it first with him. Bill promised this would never happen again–and it didn’t. By the close of business that evening, the subordinate found himself promoted over the bureaucrat’s head. Word spread through the building quickly and, as I recall, we didn’t have that problem any more.)
Bring Back the Old Spooks
Here’s where the outside operations talent comes in. The CIA’s operations directorate used to be filled with men (and some very remarkable women) who knew their way around the world, including its back alleys, and could make the most amazing things happen, or not happen. Alas, most of our greatest spooks are dead or no longer able to work. But a few of them are still kicking, and living in places like California, Florida, and Costa Rica because they all loathe Washington. If asked to serve our country in time of crisis they will drop everything and come running–and in a few cases, crawling while dragging along their oxygen tanks. Reactivate their clearances and bring them back into the agency; it isn’t their physical prowess we need, but their street smarts and their priceless lists of contacts around the world with whom they have stayed in touch and who owe them favors. Have these old timers give the agency’s younger spooks a helping hand to get whatever information they can about anti-U.S. actions our adversaries may be planning. It will be sloppy, and sometimes bloody. But it will work, and the younger operatives will learn how it’s done.
Meanwhile, we move fast to repair the CIA’s fractured relations with other intelligence services that can help us get the information we need. Obviously, this would include the intelligence services of those governments that genuinely want us to win the war, such as Great Britain and Israel. Less obviously, it will include the intelligence services of some governments that want us to lose, but whose first-rate intelligence services will give us a hand anyway, even if it means running operations against their own foreign ministries, because they have their heads screwed on and know their countries will need to have good relations with the U.S. long after the current political leaders are gone. (Do I really need to spell this out, mes cheres?)
It’s this business over “all of our allies’ intelligence services believed that Iraq had an active WMD program” that fractured relations, so it’s important that we understand how this train wreck happened: The key point is that with just a few exceptions, our allies rely on the U.S. to provide intelligence just as they rely on the U.S. for their defense; they prefer to spend their money on social programs and have us do the heavy lifting. So, if you are the head of an allied intelligence service, your first rule is to keep good relations with the CIA because the agency will do favors that your own government needs but cannot afford, for instance by providing analyses that are beyond the reach of your own service, passing along some satellite photos or electronic intercepts and even, on occasion, conducting a clandestine operation. The CIA understands this, of course, and the technical term for how the agency takes advantage of its power to grant or withhold favors is “blackmail.”
Here’s how the game is played: The CIA goes to a senior official of an allied intelligence service with the draft of an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate about, say, “Switzerland’s Looming Instability,” and asks for the allied service’s comments. The allied intelligence official reads the draft, runs to the head of his service and says, “The boys at CIA are way off-base here. We’ve got to tell them this is nuts.” The allied intelligence chief scans the CIA draft, thinks for a moment about the consequences of crossing the CIA, and scribbles a note to his counterpart in Washington: “This is quite remarkable, really an extraordinary piece of work.” The CIA completes its NIE and sends it to the White House with assurances that the allied services are “on board.” (The mess of Iraq’s WMDs isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. Back in the early 1980s, when the CIA was insisting that the Soviet economy was growing at a robust annual rate of more than three percent–when in fact it was starting to implode–all of our allies’ intelligence services backed the CIA despite their own information to the contrary. They simply couldn’t afford to get cross-wise with the agency, and it took a huge effort to turn all this around.)
No More “Blackmail”
Right now the CIA needs to pass word to its overseas counterparts that we’re serious. We need some help, and we really, really want their best judgment, and whatever information they can provide, about what various world leaders and governments might be planning to do to keep us from winning the war. No more bureaucratic blackmail; we need a hand, we welcome dissenting views, and we won’t forget your help when all this is over.
None of this will substitute for the complex, long-term changes that will be needed to give our country a 21st-century intelligence service, such as those involving its structure and organization, and of course its ability to field agents throughout the world who are fluent in local languages and customs. What all this will do is get our government’s radar working again; sending out its signals so that luminescent green line can once again be sweeping around the dial and pinging when it finds something our leaders need to know. It’s an emergency-repair job, with the bureaucratic equivalent of baling wire, chewing gum, and duct tape. And it’s better than nothing.
–Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan administration as special assistant to the director of central intelligence and as vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. His recent video is The Siege of Western Civilization.