Marking Intelligence Smart

By Colby, Elbridge A. | Policy Review, August-September 2007 | Go to article overview

Marking Intelligence Smart


Colby, Elbridge A., Policy Review


ADISASTROUS "BOLT FROM the blue" attack kills thousands; enraged politicians and pundits point fingers; committees gravely recommend changes; a massive reorganization of the nation's security and intelligence organs follows. Sound familiar? It's the chain of events that followed not only the attacks of September 11, but also those of December 7, 1941 in America and October 1973 in Israel; you can find a similar pattern at work in the shocking fall of British Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 and even in the Roman Senate's reaction to the surprising irruption of Hannibal into the Italian peninsula.

Yet to listen to today's conventional wisdom--we can make intelligence much better, and doing so will make us much safer--one would think that the problem of surprise attacks and intelligence failures had never before been addressed by governments. After 9/11, political leaders and opinion-makers on both sides of the aisle clamored for sweeping and immediate reform: The Democrats banged the table for the full-fledged adoption of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations; congressional Republicans and their think tank allies demanded a more "forward-leaning" human intelligence service; and chin-stroking centrists argued the nation should put more dollars into intelligence collection, steering clear of the sharper-edged policies that earn us the world's opprobrium. Then came the intelligence missteps associated with the Iraq WMD program, at which point the demand for a better intelligence system grew strong enough to overwhelm the natural inertia of the status quo.

Six years after September 11, this wave of reformist zeal has finally crested--for the time being at least--leaving an opening for us to take stock of what all the sound and fury has left behind. Some good ideas have been proposed and implemented, and some bad ones as well; none, however, is likely to make our intelligence dramatically better or the U.S. dramatically safer. Examining why this is so, both theoretically and practically, reveals a more nuanced picture of what intelligence can do, how it can be improved, and how it fits into a smoothly running national security system.

Some needed reforms

FIRST, THE GOOD news: There hasn't been a mad rush to string up the unlucky along with the few incompetent, as there was in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The narrative innards of the 9/11 report on the September 11 attacks and the WMD Commission report on Iraq War intelligence errors did not purport to chronicle sorry tales of stupidity, incompetence, and failure. (1) Neither report tried to pin the blame for what had gone wrong on one administration or party. Even the more strident congressional reports on 9/11 and the Iraq WMD fiasco avoided too much mud-slinging. Instead, they all told very complicated stories and drew somewhat mundane lessons: There was insufficient cooperation between the foreign intelligence apparatus and the FBI; CIA analysts feared embarrassment if they were shown to have underestimated Iraq's nuclear program for a second time; and, more generally, the behavior and intentions of al Qaeda and Iraq were, when judged fairly, extremely hard to decipher. Both reports focused on analysis as the most troubled area of intelligence performance and directed their recommendations toward rectifying its faults. Ultimately, both reports implied that the American intelligence system had serious flaws but that the difficulties of understanding the threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are not susceptible to easy fixes.

The tone of the reforms that followed, however, was set by the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, released in late summer 2004. It was these, backed by an aggressive public relations campaign by the commissioners, that were largely written into law with the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. (The WMD Commission recommendations, released in spring 2005, focused chiefly on developing a leadership program for the director of national intelligence and other intelligence community leaders in light of the new law. …

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