Politics & Policy

Intelligence Failures

Virtues and sins of commission.

Two cheers for the Silberman-Robb Commission Report, which for the first time raises some of the basic issues about the rot that has long festered within the intelligence community. Yes, it’s too long, (much too long), and unfortunately the authors are forever telling us “we think, we recommend, we believe,” rather than just writing simple declarative English. But okay, that’s the way commissions work, and there is a lot here that makes it worth the heavy plowing to get through the 600 pages. Unfortunately, the entire argument–one of the great merits of the enterprise is that there is actually a sustained and coherent argument from beginning to end–rests on an unprovable assumption that is unnecessary and, alas, quite likely misleading.

The good things are very good, and the very best thing is that they recognize that intelligence is more an art than a science, and they therefore rightly insist that the success or failure of the intelligence community will ultimately depend on the quality of the people and how they are treated. I can’t remember the last time that was said in a public document, or even in the mounting pile of commentary on the report, and it’s really the most important thing. Silberman/Robb say it, say it often, and try to figure out how best to do it. They recognize that the culture of the community is rotten–the results speak for themselves, after all–and they suggest ways to retain talented people, ranging from attractive side benefits like travel, sabbaticals, and greater opportunities to mix with the outside intellectual world.

Changing the culture club

They recognize that the community will need both generalists and specialists, and they properly insist that there must be room for both. If an analyst wants to spend her career studying Yemen, and Yemen alone, it might be a good thing. If a case officer wants to spend decades in Central Asia, we should probably encourage him to do it. I agree entirely, but this requires a radical revision in the way promotions and awards are handed out, and it’s not going to be easy to find leaders with the confidence and courage necessary to do it. Which puts us back in front of the basic problem once again. How do you find good people, and how do you keep them once you’ve found them?

They are also alarmed at a recent brain drain that has left the community bottom-heavy with new arrivals, and they suggest the creation of an “intelligence university” where the recruits can be properly trained. They hope that this, combined with their recommendations to make life in the community more attractive, will help solve the manpower problem. But here, too, the chickens and eggs often become indistinguishable from one another. We’re dealing with a failed culture, as the commission tells us over and over again. Who’s going to staff the university? If it’s the remaining “experts” (that is, mostly the mediocre ones who didn’t or couldn’t join the brain drain), how can Intel U produce good graduates? It just becomes a method of perpetuating the failed culture, doesn’t it?

The commission vigorously endorses “competitive analysis,” and is remarkably open-minded about the best way to accomplish this. I think they are right to recognize that this will often depends on the subject; sometimes it will be best to ask outside analysts to take a fresh look, other questions will be best addressed by “Teams B” from inside the community. Their insistence on the urgency of intellectual conflict within the community is one of the most refreshing parts of the report, and one can only hope that Negroponte, Goss, and Jacoby take it to heart.

The report suffers from the community’s favorite conceit: that there is something called “tradecraft” that distinguishes an intelligence analyst or case officer from every other scholar or investigator. In the case of analysis, this is nonsense; it’s one of the little clouds that intelligence officers use to dismiss conflicting views and criticism. Yes, those who analyze satellite images need special skills, but so does a sociologist analyzing urban turmoil. And the “tradecraft” of the real spooks, the case officers and deep cover spies, has been perhaps the greatest community failure for at least a generation. Here, the commission identifies one of the prime reasons for that failure: The community rewards “recruitments” rather than finding precious secrets from our enemies. This in turn puts a premium on getting “assets” to accept money, so that the case officer can add a notch to his “asset belt.” But there are many cases in which people with invaluable information won’t take money from CIA or DIA or the FBI; they’re willing to cooperate with us, but not work for us. Yet the community culture is famously bad at dealing with such people.

All of which leads to two conclusions that the commission could not reach, even though, reading between the lines, it seems pretty clear they would have if they could have: First, there must be accountability, and this means that lots of people should be fired (and should have been fired long since, especially after 9/11). And second, that, instead of expanding personnel–as the president requested and Congress obliged after the terrorist attacks three and a half years ago, and as the president again requested and Congress again obliged following the dreadful recommendations of the 9/11 Commission just before last year’s elections–we should drastically reduce manpower, and then, if necessary, slowly rebuild.

If talent and accountability are indeed the crucial issues–and, to repeat, the great strength of the report is its recognition that these are the crux of the matter–then it is impossible to get a good intelligence community by shuffling the failed bureaucrats around in new configurations, and then providing them with lots of new bodies to badly train and educate. It is a guaranteed formula for worse intelligence because it produces more and more bad analysts and ineffective case officers. The intelligence community needs a big-time purge, not a brainless expansion accompanied by a monster reshuffle of boxes, connections, and interagency groups.

The commission couldn’t say these things, because they were not part of its mandate. Instead, they occasionally hint at these conclusions–I can’t imagine such a great talent as Larry Silberman (who should be sitting on the Supreme Court) submitting to total censorship on such an important matter–and probably raised the matter, verbally, when they briefed the top congressional and executive-branch officials.

Dead Wrong?

Finally, the unprovable assumption I started with: that there were no WMDs in Iraq. The report says, over and over, that the assessment that Saddam had an active WMD program, and that there were significant quantities of WMDs, was “dead wrong.” But we don’t know that. Indeed, we can not possibly know it. All we know, at the moment, is that we didn’t find any, and the current wisdom has it that we didn’t find them because they weren’t there in the first place.

To which one must ask: Were all the intelligence services of the world “dead wrong”? Were the others as bad as we were? Did Brits, French, Germans, Russians, Israelis, Italians, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Spaniards, to name a few, all come to the same wrong conclusion? What are the odds on that? Why should anyone believe that? Aging readers of NRO may recall that, months before the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I wrote that WMDs were being smuggled to Iran and Syria. Others, including people on the ground, have said the same or similar things. On what basis are those hypotheses dismissed?

They are dismissed by constant reference to the Iraq Survey Group. Without putting too fine an edge on it, the ISG comes from the same intelligence community that the commission savages for hundreds of pages. Why should this particular group’s findings (actually non-findings) be taken as canonical? It makes no sense to me.

I don’t think it would have weakened the commission’s critique one iota to have said, “We do not know whether Saddam actually had these things. We only know that none has been found. If there were none, it is one kind of intelligence failure. If there were WMDs but don’t seem to be there now, it’s another kind of failure. Either way, we failed.”

The great advantage of taking that position–aside from its logical superiority to the unprovable assumption–is that it reminds us that the war against the terror masters is not a war in a single country, but a life-and-death struggle over a vast region, in which our enemies help one another in many ways. And our failure to recognize that, and plan accordingly, is truly the greatest intelligence failure of them all.

Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...

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