Wisdom In Intelligence

May 12, 2006
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Ever since General Washington paid for information about the British troops quartered in Trenton (even before that, actually), the United States government has needed good intelligence on the various threats and conditions in the world. For a variety of reasons, the response to that need has often been less than sufficient, but the United States has survived through this blindness through a combination of Providence and the unsung efforts of a few good men through the many years. But the War on Terrorism is not one which may be ignored until the mood strikes Congress to address it, nor will a lack of information and action fail to cost us dearly.

The United States has long had agencies to address the need for Intelligence, but they have often been created after the need was apparent, to meet a former condition, and so are reactive rather than proactive, missing the present crisis. Before World War 2, it should be understood that the only extant Intelligence organizations in the United States Government came in two flavors – Military, as in Army Intelligence and the Office of Naval Intelligence, and Diplomatic, as in the State Department. And worse, actionable intelligence information was often neglected, because the information was restricted from men who could make use of it, like the fact that Purple decrypts warning of an imminent attack were withheld from Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor, and more often than not, timely warnings were withheld until they served no use. The creation of the Office of Strategic Services was partly to correct this flaw, as the OSS carried out many raids and missions on the strength of secret information. But Harry Truman, while aware that the operations by Intelligence agents could be important to America’s interests, believed that in peacetime such operations were dangerously prone to creating conflicts with other countries. When you’re already in a fight, you don’t worry about the results of throwing a punch, but throwing the first punch and starting a fight is something else altogether.

Truman had to reconsider his options later however, as events in East Europe and Asia made it obvious he needed people in place, which led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Group, later reorganized as the CIA. And from that beginning sprang a flood of agencies. Air Force Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Department of Energy Intelligence Office, and many more. Each filled a niche, though many grew in size and budget and scope, to the point that many of them began to overlap, which was not only inefficient but actually created holes wherein enemies were able to hide information, even to play one agency against another. And the CIA, seeing itself at the heart of the Intelligence Community, did more than a little empire building, at the cost of the military and the government it claimed to serve. Many people have forgotten, if they ever learned, that the CIA spied on President Nixon, and stole documents from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This does not mean that the actions of the Church Committeee were wholly justified, but it does remind the reader that the CIA did, in fact, become a rogue agency which considered itself truly accountable to no one.

Fast forward to September 11, 2001. Whatever your opinion of the events leading up to that day, it is reasonable to conclude that the Intelligence Community badly misjudged the threat and the operation; the much-publicized PDB from August held no specifics, no names or dates or locations. It offered no suggestions for how security might be improved to prevent an attack, or what signs might warn that one was imminent.

Fast forward again to March 20, 2003. Whatever your opinion of the decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power, it is clear that the quality of the available intelligence from the CIA was poor indeed. Reasonable people would conclude that on the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction, while all the intelligence agencies concurred that Saddam represented a threat for WMD, it is now obvious that the CIA could and should have done a better job in both collection and analysis.

And need I remind the audience, that the Clinton Administration’s fascination with Technical Means for Intelligence collection meant money for satellites and tech support, but not for HUMINT? One reason we knew bupkiss on 9/11, was that the Clinton Administration not only would not support the HUMINT programs which could have given us warning, but set up policies which actively worked against early warning of specific threats. The PATRIOT Act addressed some of that, but a broad and deep reform of the CIA was needed. And that has always been a difficult, thankless, overdue job. The question at hand, is whether Porter Goss did much of what was needed while he was Director-CIA, or whether the worst of it remains for General Hayden.

The CIA, despite the creation of the Office of National Director of Intelligence, still fills a vital role, as the majority of actionable intelligence comes from the CIA as Human Intelligence. It’s like the t-shirt said about re-electing Bush: “Four more years of tax cuts and dead terrorists”. To kill terrorists you have to find them, and that takes people. It’s a good thing General Hayden has experience with fink-hunting at NSA; we need that instinct and attitude at Langley.

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