View Full Version : The question is not what went wrong, but what didn't.

04-14-04, 06:03 AM
The question is not what went wrong, but what didn't.
The Failure of U.S. Intelligence
by Ted Gup
April 13th, 2004 10:30 AM

A John Le Carré character once dismissed spies as "a squalid procession of vain fools." In a somewhat more charitable mood, the author wrote that "it's easy to forget what intelligence consists of: luck and speculation. Here and there a windfall, here and there a scoop." Well, it's been a long time since U.S. intelligence has had any windfalls or scoops to crow about. Indeed, it has been decades since American intelligence was last under so dark a cloud. One would have to go back to Pearl Harbor or the Bay of Pigs or the shocking congressional investigations of the mid '70s that revealed domestic surveillance, assassination plots, mind-control experiments, and an intelligence apparatus out of control.

But not even those dire times compare to today's double whammy: the catastrophic failure to imagine, much less thwart, the attacks of 9-11, and the epochal embarrassment on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Taken together, they are without precedent. The causes appear bewilderingly complex, unfit for a nation used to answers that fit neatly in the palm of the hand like a PDA. There is no single villain, no one political party, no lone agency, upon which so much misery may be hung. Nor is there any quick fix, notwithstanding the government's illusory efforts at reform—the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, another terrorist-threat assessment center, another commission.

But history now offers a unique window in which to critically examine the intelligence community and to make bold changes. From within and from without, the official wall of silence is finally cracking. First it was former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill exposing the administration's fixation with Iraq even before 9-11. Then came former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke's account of a presidency hell-bent on toppling Saddam and constructing a missile defense shield, even as bin Laden once more targeted the twin towers. Even George Tenet, director of central intelligence, is now proclaiming that he never used the word imminent to describe the threat posed by Iraq. And Democrats, long cowed by fears of appearing unpatriotic, are finally asking the questions they should have raised long before this political season.


The question What went wrong? The Answer: everything. Consider five key areas that span the cycle of intelligence: the collection of information, the analysis, the application (how intelligence is used), congressional oversight, and finally, the public debate and discourse sparked by whatever glimpses the public may catch of the process and its product. Weakness anywhere along the chain may spell disaster. Systemic failure at every phase is what we face today.

COLLECTION describes the gathering of information by the "intelligence community," a misnomer referring to some 15 semi-autonomous entities and a budget somewhere near $40 billion. These include the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the intelligence units within the military branches, and others. Overseeing the whole, at least in theory, is George Tenet. It is called a "community" but for years it has been defined by bitter rivalries and the jealous husbanding of information, which, in intelligence, is the sole coin of the realm. Exacerbated by incompatible information systems, divergent cultures, and conflicting missions, these entities often placed parochial advantage above national interests. If nothing else, 9-11 finally exposed to public view the depths of bureaucratic wrangling.

But the intelligence on terrorism and Iraq, both deemed "denied areas" in intelligence parlance, was weak at best. In both realms, one of the keys to collection was the clandestine officer in the field under either embassy cover or non-official cover, known as NOC's. For years the U.S. allowed its "humint" (for human intelligence) to degrade. Its numbers decreased, its quality deteriorated. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many veteran covert operatives declared victory and retired. They were replaced by younger, greener officers. A grizzled pro recalls one new arrival chafing to go with him undercover to the Middle East. He had him smile and saw thousands of dollars' worth of American orthodontics. If you don't mind me taking a mallet and knocking out a few of your teeth, he told the young man, you can join me; otherwise, one smile and you'll get us both killed. The recruit declined the invitation.

It had been years since the U.S. had an embassy in Baghdad or any other platform for gathering intelligence "in-country." Terrorist cells proved even harder to penetrate. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence fell under the swoon of technology—the Boys-and-Their-Toys Syndrome. Increasingly it relied on intercepts, satellite imagery, and questionable forensics instead of spies in the field. Accuracy suffered. In 1998, in retaliation for embassy bombings in Africa, the U.S. sent cruise missiles to wipe out a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, claiming that soil analysis showed precursors to the VX nerve agent. The Agency had no one on the ground to confirm the finding. The plant actually produced drugs, including antimalarial agents, and though the U.S. ultimately settled with the plant owner, it has never admitted error. Indeed, Tenet continues to defend the strike, though privately others concede it was a mistake. (A preemptive assault against a sovereign nation based on nonexistent WMDs. Sound familiar?)

A year later, during the Yugoslav air war, the failure to consult clandestine operatives familiar with Belgrade resulted in the Agency mistakenly having the Chinese embassy bombed, thereby setting back Sino-U.S. relations for years. Other embarrassments included the failure to forecast India's nuclear tests in 1999 or the progress made by North Korea's missile program. The clandestine service was viewed as risk-averse and anemic.

Linguistic needs, too, went unfilled, particularly for Arabic and other languages of a region identified as a breeding ground for terrorists. (The richest pool of native speakers—those in the Arab American community—was largely alienated by the U.S.'s post-9-11 crackdown and the spectacle of mass detentions.)

Those entering the clandestine service during the '80s and '90s, even as terrorism metastasized—including the first twin towers attack ('93), the bombings of two U.S. embassies ('98), the assault on the destroyer Cole ('00)—were still enslaved to Cold War models. Most covert operatives were based in capitals at U.S. embassies, a carryover from when the Soviets and the U.S. engaged in a form of espionage too easily parodied by Mad magazine's cartoon Spy vs. Spy. U.S. intelligence clung to the paradigm that terrorism was state-sponsored, a vestige of the days when all mischief was attributed to Moscow or its proxies. The notion that a state could be sponsored by terrorists, as were the Taliban by Al Qaeda, was inconceivable. "The biggest danger is inherited assumptions that get handed down from generation to generation," Jami Miscik, the CIA's deputy director for intelligence, recently observed.

Nor would such a bias be corrected by those around President Bush. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was an acolyte of just such a world vision, having been trained as a Soviet scholar. On September 11, 2001, she had prepared to deliver a national security speech in which there was to be no mention of Al Qaeda or bin Laden, reflecting the mindset of an administration about to be blindsided.

Meanwhile, the terrorists were in the countryside, not the capitals, recruiting, constructing training camps, and studying how to turn Western technology against itself. It was almost gospel that U.S. operatives could not penetrate terrorist cells, a presumption shaken by the capture of John Walker Lindh, a 20-year-old Californian snared in Afghanistan and known as "the American Taliban."

Langley's weaknesses, the unwillingness of Tenet to resist political pressures, and the predilection for invading Iraq—finishing the job, in the parlance of some hawks—fused with all too familiar results. Without an embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. became overly reliant on Iraqi exiles and minorities who had vested interests in exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam and in spurring America to depose him, thereby greasing their own futures. (Journalists like The New York Times' Judith Miller also fell under their sway, trumpeting Saddam's forbidden arsenal.)


04-14-04, 06:04 AM
As for terrorism, there was a certain smugness at Langley. Tenet, while identifying Al Qaeda as a threat, hinted to Congress only months before 9-11 that bin Laden was beleaguered by the CIA and...