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.
Iraq, to my mind, was the more serious intelligence failure. Our analysis was wrong. That said, we did not go to war in 2003 because of a faulty National Intelligence Estimate. (NIEs are the consensus judgments of the 16-member intelligence community, as produced by the National Intelligence Council, which I helped lead during the Bush administration's first term.) Indeed, the notorious October 2002 NIE warning that Iraq possessed WMD had virtually no effect on anyone's decision about whether to go to war. It probably did not influence President Bush or other senior policymakers, who had pretty much made up their minds to invade Iraq months earlier. It had no effect on the Senate: As The Washington Post reported in 2004, no more than six senators read beyond the five-page executive summary of the NIE, although 77 senators voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Nor did the NIE have much effect on the United Nations: The Security Council declined to support the hawkish U.S. and British position despite the NIE's alarming (and alarmist) assessment of Iraq's arsenal.
The real problem with U.S. intelligence on Iraq is simply that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to envision an NIE based on good intelligence that would have come up with the correct answer. The best my fellow analysts could have done, I think, would have been to offer three analytical options: Saddam Hussein has WMD; he does not have WMD; or we simply do not know. And of course, given his track record of gassing Kurds, attacking neighbors and resisting U.N. weapons inspections, the most likely of the three still would have been that he had WMD. But analytical responses that cover the waterfront of possibilities are not seen as very useful to policymakers, for obvious reasons. Moreover, even if we had concluded that we just didn't know what Iraq had, Bush would have probably favored going to war anyway, and Congress would have gone along, largely out of political expediency.
The shock of 9/11 and the debacle over Iraqi WMD created an instant consensus that U.S. intelligence was seriously flawed and needed to be overhauled. The 9/11 Commission, which pushed hard for a new director of national intelligence to quarterback the sprawling intelligence community, offered recommendations for intelligence reform that had no logical connection to the story told in its bestselling but overrated final report. Meanwhile, the problems inherent in the new structure that the commission proposed were glossed over. The resultant intelligence-reform legislation was crafted by staffers on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee who had scant working knowledge of the way intelligence functions. Senior members of the intelligence community spent hours with the Senate staffers, trying to bring them up to speed on what intelligence is and how it works. (I speak from personal experience.)
To avoid repeating old blunders, much attention has been lavished on intelligence analysis. Standards of tradecraft and integrity have been introduced, and the NIEs have undergone various technical fixes. But the intelligence community's batting average has not gone up. And it won't, even though this was the unstated intention of all the changes.
Why won't the analysts' success rate change? Simply because there is not vast room for improvement. A lot depends on the nature of the issue and the question being asked. The intelligence community will do reasonably well at explaining whether China will become a major rival because "Whither China?" is a large, open-ended question that relies less on hard intelligence than on good suppositions. But determining where and when the next terrorist attack will come? That requires penetrating deep into closed al-Qaeda circles and depends on some awfully lucky breaks in data collection. The best that the U.S. government can reliably produce is some incremental improvements in analysis -- none of which will guarantee that the nation will not be surprised again.
The pressure to avoid another 9/11 or Iraq is so intense that the intelligence community is expending great effort to little gain. The state of the NIEs is a perfect example. The collectors of intelligence now have to swear by their sources, all of which will be thoroughly scrubbed. The push for consensus among the intelligence community's often squabbling agencies will end. But none of this will assure that the reliability of the estimates themselves will increase. More important, none of this will increase the likelihood that policymakers, in the executive branch or Congress, will read these often ponderous, densely written tomes.
The blunt truth? The intelligence community would be far better off scrapping NIEs altogether and going to a streamlined, better written product similar to the sharper assessments produced in Britain and Australia. And if we are going to be serious about improving intelligence analysis, we have to stop publishing the end products -- even in redacted forms that can show up in the pages of this newspaper. More than anything else, this certainty that internal assessments will wind up on public display stifles the vibrant, edgy, out-of-the-box analysis that everyone says they want -- until it disagrees with their political point of view, of course.
Intelligence is not in the business of predicting or forecasting. Intelligence tends to do worse on the "big events" (Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall) because these events, by their very nature, are counterfactual or surprising. Nor can intelligence eliminate the element of surprise.
Intelligence is actually good at something that can seem awfully mundane: keeping policymakers generally well-informed on a recurring basis so that they can make decisions with a reasonable sense of confidence. Given the frequency with which this occurs -- as opposed to the headline-grabbing crises -- this is no small service. Unfortunately, it is also no longer one that many people seem to value.
Mark M. Lowenthal is president and chief executive of the Intelligence & Security Academy LLC. From 2002-05, he was an assistant director of central intelligence and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council.