A Tradition of Lack of Intelligence

By William F. Sauerwein

For men and women in uniform, the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence services might seem to be a remote abstraction, but in reality it is a subject that can define their next deployment and determine whether they serve in safety or face dangers for which they are unprepared.

While intelligence has played a significant role in U.S. military operations beginning with the American Revolution, as a society we have largely disdained it. In early America, spies were regarded as the lowest form of life, and hanging was a common punishment. Throughout most of our history, we relied mainly on our diplomatic services and military attaches for providing strategic intelligence. Tactical intelligence was gathered through military scouts and cavalry units.

History shows us how poor intelligence can lead to military defeat.

Even today, there is still a lot of interest in the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, and historians continue to speculate on the “what if” scenarios of that clash. But most agree that a primary reason that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia met defeat there was from a lack of intelligence. Lee’s army was on unfamiliar ground in Pennsylvania, and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry corps – Lee’s “eyes and ears” – had failed in their mission to seek out and locate the Union Army.

The role of intelligence in U.S. government operations changed little in the seven decades after the Civil War. By the 1930s, when the threat of war loomed in both Europe and Asia, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union all had effective intelligence networks operating in the United States, including American citizen agents. The United States had no such network, and still relied on formal diplomatic circles. The Army’s “American Black Chamber” organization that had successfully broken foreign government coded messages during World War I – and later was part of the State Department – was arbitrarily shut down in 1929.

The United States did not establish a dedicated intelligence service focusing on foreign countries until the summer of 1941. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) rendered good service during World War Two, particularly in running agent operations behind enemy lines in France and Germany. Creating an agency of such magnitude takes time, particularly in establishing agent networks. Unfortunately, in the summer of 1941 we did not have the luxury of time, as evidenced by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor remains the most famous (or infamous) intelligence failure in our history, and the controversy still rages today as to why inter-service rivalry in Hawaii and mismanagement of the intelligence-collecting process in Washington had enabled the Japanese fleet to steam across the Pacific undetected.

Gordon Prange’s history, At Dawn We Slept, also recounts that the U.S. plan for gathering intelligence in Japan was doomed from the start. We expected our military attaches and journalists to have free access and movement in a totalitarian state. Our Caucasian personnel did not blend in with the Oriental population, helping Japanese police to monitor them and the Japanese they contacted.

The Pearl Harbor failures still serve as a textbook example of the profound difficulties that intelligence analysts have in identifying the small handful of relevant facts in a torrent of raw data, which may also include information that is part of an enemy’s deception plan. It is always easy after the fact to identify the patterns and to “connect the dots.”

This brings us to perhaps the biggest stumbling block of intelligence work, making the correct political or military decision based on the information currently available. Making that decision falls squarely on the shoulders of our political leaders, and ultimately the president.

That was true on Dec. 7, 1941, and it was true on Sept. 11, 2001.

When discussing the intelligence failures prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is important to recognize that intelligence itself had been politicized. First, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) became the favorite “whipping boy” of American leftists during the Cold War. Second, “fighting fire with fire” in a hostile world, the CIA indeed had made some serious blunders. As in all government agencies, when blunders occur they do not merely punish the guilty, they punish everyone through more stringent policies.

With the end of the Cold War, the political leaders opted to cut back on the CIA and other agencies, much like their military counterparts. Officials replaced agents on the ground in potential hotspots with technological surveillance such as satellites and eavesdropping stations. While this technology provided volumes of information, it overwhelmed our reduced force of analysts, who could not provide timely intelligence.

Another significant blow to U.S. human intelligence-gathering stemmed from a June 1995 congressional hearing led by then-Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-NJ. Critics had accused the CIA of conspiring with the Guatemalan Army in the murder of a Guatemalan who was the husband of an American citizen. Subsequently, the then-Director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch, decreed a new policy banning agents from using “unsavory individuals” as sources. No local police department interested in successfully fighting crime would institute such a policy, but it became the rule at the CIA.

A January 1997 analysis by Professor Diane Snyder, “With a Little Bit of Heart and Soul: Analyzing the Role of HUMINT in the Post Cold War Era,” emphasized a major problem. HUMINT, an acronym for human intelligence, means agents on the ground gathering information. It also means human analysts clarifying and explaining the raw data gathered by these agents, as well as that gathered through technological sources.

Snyder’s report found that in many ways, U.S. intelligence efforts were easier during the Cold War. We focused most of our efforts on the Soviet Union and its satellite nations. Now, with severely diminished resources, intelligence efforts must encompass wide-ranging military threats, terrorism, narcotics-trafficking and nuclear proliferation.

Moreover, the CIA and law enforcement agencies such as the FBI continued operating with little effective cooperation between them – a recipe for disaster that was the product of both congressional restrictions and bureaucratic culture. Like the Army and Navy in Hawaii in December 1941, the federal agencies with disparate responsibilities for what we now call homeland security remained blind to the approaching threat.

Long before 9/11, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization had been linked to attacks against American targets: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Africa, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. These were coordinated attacks of unprecedented sophistication for a terrorist organization, yet, in 2001 we still had no agents on the ground in Afghanistan where bin Laden was training tens of thousands of terrorist fighters.

Nearly three years later, there have been improvements – particularly in reorganizing dozens of federal agencies to focus on homeland security.

But in many ways, our intelligence capabilities still seem to be selling our soldiers short. And many political leaders who sought the limelight over the intelligence failures of 9/11 seem more interested in harvesting political capital over the “uranium from Africa” debate instead of asking the more important questions: Why was our intelligence so inaccurate regarding the level of resistance we have encountered in Iraq? After more than a decade of keeping Iraq under a microscope, why do we apparently have such poor abilities to monitor those organizing the guerilla fighting?

Our troops in Iraq today are struggling in a hostile and volatile environment. Their advanced weapons and systems that easily defeated the Iraqi military are much less effective against the low-level guerilla war that has erupted.

What we may have to learn again is that poor political leadership at home and poor intelligence-gathering overseas will cancel out whatever military power we bring to bear.

William F. Sauerwein is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at mono@gtec.com.