Intelligence Failures; the Wrong Model for the War on Terror

By Russell, Richard L. | Policy Review, February-March 2004 | Go to article overview

Intelligence Failures; the Wrong Model for the War on Terror


Russell, Richard L., Policy Review


THE CONTROVERSY surrounding the American pre-war intelligence assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs dominates the airwaves and print media. Behind-the-scenes investigations spawned by the Iraq performance as well as the tragedies of September 11, 2001 offer a fleeting window of opportunity to chart and implement much-needed reforms of a beleaguered intelligence community.

The intelligence community's failure to warn with the clarity needed to disrupt the conspiracy of September 11 and its less-than-stellar performance in assessing Iraqi WMD programs highlight both the dangers to security and the demands for strategic intelligence in the twenty-first century. The community can hardly be trusted to do an honest and balanced critique of its performance in the wake of these events. It comprises numerous intelligence agencies, each with its own set of entrenched interests. As it stands today, the intelligence agencies are bureaucratically modeled after the management layers and hierarchies of the blue-chip companies of old, such as IBM. (1) But while the market weeds out noncompetitive companies that are too rigid and inflexible to be successful in the private sector, noncompetitive organizations are perpetuated by inertia in the public sector. As Richard K. Betts insightfully noted in Foreign Affairs ("Fixing Intelligence," January-February 2002), "The current crisis presents the opportunity to override entrenched and outdated interests, to crack heads and force the sorts of consolidation and cooperation that have been inhibited by bureaucratic constipation."

The intelligence community's antiquated capabilities are devoted to exploitation of clandestinely acquired information that collectively sheds only a narrow light on the broad array of national security threats. Intelligence--in its boiled-down essence--is information, and information is critical to the power of competitive businesses as well as to the power of terrorists and nation-states. But in the United States, the intelligence community has profoundly lost its competitive advantage over the private sector for the collection and analysis of publicly available information. In order to gain greater access to the secrets that transnational organizations and nation-states seek to deny the U.S. as well as to exploit the explosion in public information, the community must sharpen its collection and analytic tools. Reforms instigated by independent reviews and implemented either by executive order or by congressional legislation need to be aimed at transforming the intelligence community from failed top-down institutions based on obsolete business models of the 1950s to the nimble, bottom-up, flat, and networked organizations that thrive in the age of information technology revolution. The United States needs to reforge its obsolescent intelligence community if it is to match wits with transnational threats to American security such as al Qaeda and traditional threats stemming from nation-states with the political intent and military means to challenge American interests and power.

First stop, the CIA

THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY is the "first among equals" in the intelligence community and deserves particularly close independent scrutiny. The agency benefits from a bureaucratic position that separates it from the pressures of policy interests to a far greater degree than its brother intelligence agencies. The CIA also uniquely benefits from its traditional privileged access to the president and his key national security lieutenants. Yet CIA'S support to the commander-in-chief over the past decade in major armed conflicts reveals a consistent pattern of shortcomings, particularly in regard to human intelligence collection. One of the starkest lessons to be gleaned from looking at past CIA performance is that it has consistently failed to produce top-quality human intelligence against the greatest threats to the United States. …

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