"Were we right or were we wrong?" This was Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet's central question in his 2004 talk to the faculty and students of his alma mater, Georgetown University. What he was talking about, of course, was the critical political issue of whether or not the Intelligence Community (IC) of which he was the titular head "got it right" in telling the American people and their government that Iraq was a clear danger to the United States, as opposed to being a threat to regional states, and if that danger was substantial enough to serve as a justifiable basis for war, invasion and occupation. In Tenet's address there was much of self-protection and an implicit warning that neither he nor the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would accept to be "scapegoated" in a search for the roots of misadventure in Iraq. His words establish a claim to blamelessness for the CIA and the larger Intelligence Community in the decisions leading up to the Iraq campaign and a related claim to have done as well as could fairly have been expected. In other words, he wished to be thought innocent in this matter. Is that reasonable? Is it fair to expect American citizens and officials to believe that the Intelligence Community did its work well in helping the government of the United States to make sound decisions about Iraq? This is an important question, because if they did not, then why were their judgments so flawed in spite of the incredible amounts of taxpayer money lavished on the agencies of the IC? Why should so much money have been lavished on these agencies if they could do no better?
In spite of the importance of this question, impatience with the performance of the intelligence people ought to be somewhat dependent on the outcome of a national debate as to what should be expected of the process labeled "intelligence." Reporters sometimes ask rhetorically if decisions should really be made on the basis of intelligence. At first hearing questions like this seem to be both naive and nonsensical since it is obvious that information is the stuff that decisions must be founded on. Nevertheless, decipherment of these statements leads to an understanding that those who say things like this think that "intelligence" is a form of thinking both esoteric and obscure, a dark art, separate and distinct from the normal way of knowing things and subject to acceptance or rejection by special rules of perception. In other words, they think that it is something like astrology, to be judged by its own "rules." In fact, "Intelligence" is simply another word for "information" and in ages gone by the term was used in that way by authorities like Clausewitz or Jomini. There is nothing mystical or mysterious about the process by which information or "intelligence" is collected, collated, analyzed and disseminated. "Intelligence" is scholarship conducted in the service of the state. The great bulk of the information used as data in this scholarship comes out of the huge archival files of the major agencies supplemented by daily "feedings" of; diplomatic chit-chat, aerial and satellite reconnaissance, intercepts of communications and hopefully the products of espionage (clandestine HUMINT). Like any labor of scholarship involving the study of human beings by human beings, the work is nearly always conducted with incomplete and ambiguous information as a basis for the analysis. This natural phenomenon is aggravated by the desire of the studied group to hide something, usually, that which is under study. When George Tenet said before his Georgetown audience that "We never get things altogether right in the Intelligence business, nor altogether wrong," he was correct but his statement was irrelevant to a discussion of the utility of the intelligence process since the quality of the analytic product depends on many variables, among them; good information and the quality of the minds brought to bear on the imperfect information. It is both trite and a truism that "intelligence is an art and not a science." What this means is that human beings may succeed or they may fail in making judgments based on less than complete data and that the skill, intelligence and experience of those involved is the most important factor in determining the outcome. To say that "Intelligence" is a flawed process is simply meaningless in a discussion of the effectiveness of the state in making decisions. If the "Intelligence Community" as it now exists were abolished, some other group would have to assume the burden of performing the same functions for the benefit of the state. What would they be called? Perhaps it might be, "The Agency for Special Planning?"
The issue of the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing Intelligence Community is a separate but linked question from that of knowing whether or not the elected or appointed officials of the Bush Administration may have intruded themselves inappropriately into the deliberations of the Intelligence Community in a way that led to distortions in the estimates of Iraq's significance that were presented to the president and the Congress. It is widely believed now that this occurred but that is not the subject of this essay.
The question under examination here is simple. Premise: "The Intelligence Community produced poor quality intelligence on Iraq." Therefore, one asks - Are there imbedded structural defects in the present United States Intelligence Community that contributed either directly or indirectly to the production of estimates that were unsound and which failed the nation? And, moreover, are there characteristics in the present intelligence community of the United States which now prevent and will prevent it from "reforming" itself? It is clear that the inability of the Intelligence Community to forecast or estimate Iraq's true condition was a major failure. Why did this happen, and how can the defects in the "community" be repaired? What "limits" are there in the psychology and structure of the government that may prevent "repair" of the system?
The author's conclusion after a working lifetime of studying the flaws in the system from within the community and from the evidence of continuing contacts with old colleagues and new friends in the intelligence agencies is that there are a multitude of problems in the intelligence forces of the United states and that most of them have grown up over a very long time, are now "built into" the system and are unlikely to be resolved without outside intervention by the Congress of the United States. It is impossible to consider them all but a few of the most important are so intractable as to be worth discussing here:
Col. W. Patrick Lang,is a Strategic Military & Political Intelligence Analyst. He is a retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence and U.S. Army Special Forces (The Green Berets). Col. Lang served in the Department of Defense both as a serving officer and then as a member of the Defense Senior Executive Service for many years.
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