The Real Intelligence Failure? Spineless Spies.

By Mark M. Lowenthal
Sunday, May 25, 2008

The U.S. intelligence community has failed. We have failed as a public institution and as a profession. We have failed not because of 9/11, or Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, or Iran's supposed WMD, or the horror stories about renditions and detentions. We have failed because we have not explained ourselves adequately and comprehensibly to the public -- describing our role, the limits within which we work and our view of what can be reasonably expected from us. We have failed because we have allowed ourselves to be caricatured, vilified and misrepresented by people who do not know us, do not like us and do not understand us -- or simply see us as convenient fall guys.

We have been, in a word, supine. And the net result has been a misguided restructuring of the entire intelligence community based on faulty premises. Inside the community, our passivity has meant crippled morale; outside the community, it has meant a severely diminished view of the value of the crucial, difficult tasks we perform. And we have allowed others to burden us with entirely false and unrealistic expectations.

This isn't meant as a critique of the current director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell; his predecessor, John D. Negroponte; or their staffs. They've done the best they could within a dysfunctional structure. But the fact remains that intelligence is now largely fated to be seen as a failed institution. It has also become a highly politicized one, which further dooms its future effectiveness. And that is a problem for all Americans, not just former intelligence analysts like myself.

The intelligence community's predicament was largely forged by two very different events: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the failure to find WMD in Iraq. But the lessons that outsiders have learned from these two watersheds have often been glib, fatuous and contradictory.

In 9/11, intelligence was excoriated for "failing to connect the dots" -- a demeaning, inapt concept that, unfortunately, has entered the popular lexicon. But in Iraq, intelligence was blamed for connecting too many dots.

In 9/11, intelligence did not warn intensely enough. But in Iraq, intelligence warned too intensely.

In 9/11, intelligence was faulted for a "failure of imagination." But in Iraq, intelligence had too vivid an imagination.

In 9/11, the failure to share intelligence was seen as a major problem. But in Iraq, too much information -- such as the fabricated reports about mobile bioweapons labs from the Iraqi defector infamously code-named "Curveball" -- was shared.

The subtext here, as we say in intelligence analysis, is that intelligence needs to be right all the time. But it can't be, no matter how blithely the critics expect otherwise. And it's past time we all got used to that.

I understand why people are disappointed in the way the intelligence community handled 9/11 and Iraq. But that dismay should have been tempered by an understanding of what intelligence can and cannot do -- an explanation that the intelligence community has failed to provide.

First consider 9/11. No one has yet revealed the one or two or 10 things that, had they been done differently, might have prevented the attacks. In my view, and in the view of many of my colleagues, even the missed "operational opportunities" identified by the 9/11 Commission would have done little more than force al-Qaeda to send different terrorists into the United States, especially considering the legal rules in play at the time. Even if every "dot" had been connected, they would not have led to the tactical intelligence needed to stop those four planes on that Tuesday morning.

This is a profoundly disturbing message to send. Political leaders and the public would rather believe that al-Qaeda's attacks exploited flaws that have been found and fixed, letting us all return to our pre-9/11 feeling of safety. It is too disturbing to hear the truth: Despite what we have learned, despite the changes that we have made, it could indeed happen again. And it is both comical and distressing to see members of Congress declare that, with the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2004, the United States was once again made safe.

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