Great Expectations: Intelligence as Savior

By Pillar, Paul R. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Great Expectations: Intelligence as Savior

Pillar, Paul R., Harvard International Review

US citizens, who have long relied heavily on their intelligence services for the comfort of believing that calamities from abroad will not suddenly afflict them, have made that reliance even heavier in recent years. In a poll taken by Daniel Yankelovich in June 2005, 65 percent of US citizens said that reforming the intelligence services is the best way to strengthen US security significantly. That view is reflected in the latest surge of rhetoric, inquiries, and countless other forms of attention directed at intelligence and how changing it might avoid calamities abroad.


The yearning for an intelligence fix as the key to assuring the nation's security, although especially prominent since September 11, 2001, is not new. It is rooted in an optimistic US political tradition that presumes that a democratic government will protect the people from harm if it is properly informed; incorrect information is, then, the most likely cause of a failure to provide that protection. It also is rooted in a comparably optimistic inclination to believe that any problem, especially one posing a serious threat to national security, can be solved with enough attention, resources, and ingenuity. Hence a recurrent theme: intelligence is broken, needs to be fixed, and fixing it will prevent recurrence of harm. Intelligence is, as 7th Circuit United States Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner has put it, a "natural scapegoat."

The September 11 terrorist attack, one of the most traumatic events in the nation's history, led distraught US citizens to conclude that intelligence must have been the problem because surely leaders who had intelligence on such a horrible plot would have taken any steps necessary to prevent the attack. This, at the level of tactical intelligence about individual plots, is true. The first congressional inquiries into the disaster were entrusted to the intelligence committees. The independent 9/11 Commission, created to examine all issues associated with the attacks, chose to focus on a particular proposal of its own to reorganize the intelligence community. Its report included an authoritative account of the terrorist operation itself but was otherwise crafted to bolster support for its intelligence proposal, with a selective and misleading portrayal of the intelligence community's performance and relative inattention to other variables that will have far greater effect on the future incidence of terrorism against the United States. The commission's extensive and skillful public relations effort culminated in passage by the US Congress of legislation that incorporated most of its reorganization scheme.

The US invasion of Iraq emerged as an intelligence issue when it became clear that the Iraqi unconventional weapons forming the basis of the call for war did not exist and as violence and disorder in Iraq steadily escalated. Still, for intelligence the Iraq imbroglio had a silver lining: it brought to light certain problems of tradecraft that contributed to intelligence errors in assessing Iraqi weapons programs, such as inadequate procedures for rechecking the credibility of sources. A new commission, chaired by Washington, DC, Circuit US Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman and former senator Charles Robb, documented these shortcomings and, while eschewing any scheme of its own, made several dozen useful recommendations to reduce the chance of similar errors in the future.

The interplay of the two issues of 9/11 and Iraq has impaired public understanding of what intelligence contributes to countering terrorism and avoiding ill-fated adventures such as the Iraq war. The occurrence of two huge debilitating events in less than two years wearing the "intelligence failure" label has had a multiplier effect in fostering sentiment that a broken intelligence system is the problem. One event is seen as an event; two events are seen as a pattern and a problem in need of a solution. …

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