A Failure of Intelligence

By Reich, Robert | The American Prospect, August 2004 | Go to article overview

A Failure of Intelligence


Reich, Robert, The American Prospect


America's intelligence system failed to see terrorist threats coming from al-Qaeda prior to September 11 that should have been evident, and then, after 9-11, saw terrorist threats coming from Iraq that didn't exist. A system that doesn't warn of real threats and does warn of unreal ones is broken.

A unanimous and bipartisan report, due out soon from the commission established by Congress to investigate intelligence mistakes leading up to 9-11, is likely to deal harshly with both the CIA and the FBI. Several commissioners have already opined that better intelligence gathering might have prevented the attack. Meanwhile, a unanimous and bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee has discredited the CIA's prewar assessments that Iraq possessed banned chemical and biological weapons and was seeking nuclear arms. Those assessments "either overstated or were not supported by the underlying intelligence," according to the committee. The senators blamed "a series of failures" of intelligence, failures that occurred because of "shoddy work," faulty management, outmoded procedures, "group think," and a "flawed culture."

What to do? The White House and Congress are sorting through several proposals. One would create a cabinet-level intelligence "czar" with more firm control over the nation's sprawling $40 billion system for collecting and analyzing information about security threats. A second would do just the opposite, removing the CIA director from any control over other intelligence agencies in order to invite more checks and balances. A third would better insulate the director of central intelligence from politics by giving him or her a fixed term of, say, five to seven years. A fourth, and contrary, proposal would make him or her more politically accountable both to the president and to Congress.

Some of these may have merit, but they don't respond to the core lesson. It's that when U.S. foreign policy is based primarily on what our spy agencies say, we run huge risks of getting it disastrously wrong. The lesson isn't new. U.S. intelligence failed to foresee the split between China and the Soviet Union in 1960 and 1961, and thereafter never fully comprehended it. Had U.S. policy been based more on direct diplomacy than covert operations, we might have avoided the shameful and costly Vietnam War.

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