The supposed sorry state of U.S. intelligence, along with the need to fix it, remains an easy applause line on the campaign trail. “When I’m president, we are going to rebuild our intelligence capabilities, and they’re going to tell us where the terrorists are,” Marco Rubio said at a Republican presidential debate in late January.
But are U.S. intelligence capabilities really that bad? While the budget for intelligence has been dropping for a number of years because of America’s quasi-drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the pernicious effects of sequestration, the funding allocated for the intelligence community remains far above what it was before 9/11. Of course, merely spending money doesn’t necessarily get great results. By at least some measures, though, our intelligence collection and analysis seem vastly more sophisticated than they used to be.
Consider the president’s daily intelligence report.
The CIA last year released 2,500 of its flagship intelligence documents from the 1960s. Now, regular folks can read, with some occasionally major redactions, what the agency served to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson six mornings a week. Kennedy received something called the President’s Intelligence Checklist, which became the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) in 1964.
For the public, comparison with more recent PDBs is difficult, since few have been declassified. In an upcoming history, former briefer David Priess calls the PDB the “most tightly guarded daily publication on the face of the earth.” The famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo, “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in U.S.,” and the Dec. 8, 1998, document warning “Bin Ladin Preparing To Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks” are rare exceptions that have been made public.
But as a former CIA analyst who helped draft a number of these documents during the George W. Bush and early Obama administrations, I can tell you that the Kennedy- and Johnson-era editions wouldn’t have passed muster at today’s CIA. If I’d submitted first drafts like those, my bosses would have told me to go back and try again.
The first problem with the 1960s-era PDBs is that they provided mostly tactical, perishable information: This world leader made this speech, that army advanced to that objective, a foreign minister gossiped to our ambassador about something. The Oct. 16, 1967, PDB, for instance, notes that China had built a computer that could play the song “The East Is Red” and would work on “more mundane tasks such as the problems of the national economy and advanced weapons development” — something Beijing had noted publicly at the time. My superiors would have asked me: Where’s the strategic intelligence? How does this help the president do his job? The 1960s briefs read much like the gisting of cable traffic. Are the really juicy bits in the sections that were redacted before declassification? Perhaps — though the redactions are there to protect sources and methods, not substance. Or perhaps President Richard Nixon’s acid comment that “the CIA tells me nothing I don’t read three days earlier in the New York Times” burns with more truth than one might suppose.
I also was struck by how little analysis was in this “analytical” product in the ’60s. The old memos were much shorter than the current ones. They often devoted only 100 words or so per country, compared to current PDBs which might do three or four times that. And the “so what” question was rarely answered. For example, when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968, the PDB that day had only two paragraphs dedicated to the capture. Subsequent PDBs provided updates on the ship’s whereabouts and condition. But the president seems to have been served contextfree facts. And as former CIA director Michael Hayden once quipped, “If it is a fact, it ain’t intelligence.”
Another shortcoming: The 1960s-era PDBs included little to no sourcing. Reading them, I kept wondering, “How do they know?” And, “How reliable is that information?” Occasionally the PDB noted who spoke with whom — a snippet of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s conversation with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin showed up in the Nov. 23, 1965, PDB. But attributions were few and far between. That would drive a current PDB editor crazy, as well as anyone who had to brief a president from this document.
I found, too, that the CIA was a lot looser with language in the 1960s. In the introduction of the agency’s 2011 Style Manual & Writers Guide, Director of Intelligence Fran Moore wrote: “Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing. . . . [The guide] reflects an enduring commitment to the highest standards of care and precision.” But 50 years ago, CIA analysts were less disciplined with their word choices. In just one month — November 1965 — they asserted that a dustup between Chile and Argentina aroused “Latin passions,” that “military hotheads” caused clashes on Cyprus and that “a sticky situation” may have been emerging in Buenos Aires.
That Buenos Aires item, from Nov. 23, 1965, was especially egregious: “A sticky situation could be brewing in Buenos Aires. Army strong man Ongania resigned in a huff when one of his former subordinates was made his nominal superior. President Illia has not yet grasped this hot potato.”
Another cringe-worthy passage, from Dec. 17, 1965, described a typical indoctrination campaign in China: “Every Chinese except the very young, the aged, or the infirm must attend two, three, or four meetings a week at his commune, office, factory, or neighborhood association. Each lasts two or three hours. As the drive progresses, the frequency and duration of the sessions increase. At the climax, these may turn into day-long struggle and punishment orgies.”
Today’s intelligence analysts could never get away with writing like that.
Reading these memos, I also wondered: Where was the U.S.S.R.? The CIA was basically brought into existence to counter the Soviet Union and the scourge of communism. Given the existential threat, you might surmise that intelligence on the U.S.S.R. and its proxies would dominate the presidential briefings. And there certainly was a theme that ran throughout the documents that the Soviets, as well as other communist nations and actors, were the biggest national security concerns for the American president. Still, the PDBs were surprisingly preoccupied by other issues and nations only peripherally connected to the Cold War, such as Indonesia, Rhodesia and the Dominican Republic.
To be sure, intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination are far different now than they were in the era of typewriters and steno pools. As 35-year CIA veteran Ray Converse, who joined in 1972, recalled: “The world was simply slower then in all respects. Events were not as rapid. Cables would come in on a ticker, and someone would read them to decide which offices should receive them. They were Xeroxed and disseminated in hard copy.
“An error in the mailroom, and you wouldn’t see it at all. Then one copy would come to a given branch, a buck slip slapped on it, and it would be routed around the branch. If someone was slow to read their traffic, it might be slow to hit your branch. I think sometimes people would sit on cables so no one else had seen them until they could write on it. An altogether different world!”
Documents and requirements evolve. Individual policymakers may demand different products, in different formats. President Obama, for example, often eschews an in-person briefing, preferring to read the PDB on an electronic tablet.
Kennedy and Johnson no doubt received classified information beyond the PDB from the CIA and other organizations. For example, much of the work on the Soviet Union existed in longer-term studies, produced by an organization known as the Office of National Estimates.
But based on the 1960s-era PDBs, today’s intelligence officers and analysts may be doing a superior job to their predecessors from an imagined golden age.