Why U.S. Intelligence is Inadequate, and How to Fix It

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Why US intelligence Is Inadequate, and How to Fix It

By Angelo M. Codevilla∗


*Angelo M. Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University, a fellow of the Claremont Institute and an editor of TAS, was a Foreign Service officer and served on the staff of the US Senate Intelligence Committee between 1977 and 1985. He was the principal author of the 1980 Presidential transition report on intelligence.

Conventional wisdom used to be that US intelligence was the lifeblood of the war on terror. By 2004 no one contested that intelligence, especially the CIA, was at the heart of policies that had failed to stem terrorism and had turned military victory in Iraq into embarrassment. The high level commissions that examined current failures began to suspect that these reflected longstanding, basic faults. They only scratched the surface. In fact US intelligence1 in all its functions – collection, quality control (otherwise known as counter intelligence), analysis, and covert action –is hindering America’s war.  The public, accustomed in recent years to stories of botched anti Saddam coups, had learned that CIA covert action works only in the movies. But in the summer of 2004 newspaper readers were shocked by the CIA’s admission to Senate investigators that it had precisely zero agents in Iraq in the years prior to the invasion, because getting and keeping agents in such places is tough. Was it not CIA’s job to have agents in tough places? The attentive public also remembered that the President had struck specific bunkers at the start of the Iraq war because CIA’s most valued sources assured us Saddam was staying there. But US troops inspecting the wreckage had found neither Saddam nor bunkers. Wasn’t CIA supposed to know enough not to help play America for a sucker? The commissions seemed most impressed that CIA had translated scarce and bad information into misleading analyses without dissent. Groupthink, they called it.  Voters and taxpayers wonder how an institution in which so many had placed so much trust could suddenly have been found to be such a loser.  To those close to the intelligence business however, such things are an old story.  There never was a golden age of CIA. Its performance against terrorism is not so different from what it was during the Cold War.

Not least of CIA’s problems, then as now, has been its preference for influencing US policy over striving for clarity about the outside world. It has done so by substituting its many judgments for the few hard facts it has. Phrases like “we believe…” and “we have no conclusive evidence that…” (longhand for yes and no) conveyed its prejudices to policymakers and favored media alike, feeding strife in American politics. Because the CIA vouched for the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, the Bush team chose “disarmament” as the official justification for invading that country.  The Democrats’ campaign against the Bush team for believing CIA on WMDs (as they themselves believed it), but also for disbelieving its judgment that Iraqi intelligence was not connected with 9/11 – because they themselves want to disbelieve. Such quarrels becloud the essential question: Who are the people whose death will free us from terror?

Now all agree that CIA fouled up big, and all are foursquare for reform. But the main proposals embraced by Democrats and Republicans with equal mindlessness, consist of rearranging bureaucratic wiring diagrams. It is anyone’s guess how such “reform” would increase knowledge of the outside world, instill the self criticism necessary for quality control, produce intellectual rigor out of wanton analytical sloppiness, or turn US covert action from bloody opera buffa to a serious instrument of policy. Just as important, no one seems to have asked whether any intelligence system imaginable could bring success to the current policy of trying to discover individual terrorists before they strike.

To consider what it would take to make US intelligence into an asset in the war on terror, we must first look at its basic problems.

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