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Monday, February 09, 2004

Intelligence Failures -- A Proud Tradition?

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kay.jpg It is not unusual for intelligence agencies in democratic countries to take the rap for foreign policy blunders, but these have been tough times indeed for the CIA, MI6, and the other leading members of the Western intelligence community. Following the Blix-ification of David A. Kay and the discrediting of Tony Blair’s famous “45 minutes,” US and UK politicians have been lining up like buzzards at a bus crash to demand explanations for how these agencies, whose annual budgets now exceed $50 billion, managed to overestimate Iraq’s WMDs, underestimate WMDs in Libya, Iran, and North Korea, and completely miss the role of Pakistan (and perhaps China) in franchising nuclear technology, all at once.

Similar concerns are also being muttered in France, Germany, Israel, and Russia, whose agencies all reportedly reached similar conclusions about Saddam’s WMD stockpiles.

Before this latest flurry, there was also the flap over NSA/MI6 spying on UN Security Council members, the bogus Niger uranium documents, the failure to track down Bin Laden, and, of course the mother of all intelligence failures, 9/ll.

One might have hoped for slightly more accuracy from all these countries, at least with respect to Iraq. After all, Saddam did not acquire his WMDs from Pakistan. Except for Israel, it was these same countries, plus the US and the UK, that were largely responsible for providing him WMD technology in the first place.

In any case, under acute pressure, President Bush has now courageously decided to appoint yet another Presidential Commission, one of a half dozen that he has created to shuttle fundamental policy issues to one side. And the nine-lived, unabashed George Tenet has even resorted to defending the CIA in public – a daunting task, given his track record. Evidently he must have indispensable knowledge of something, even if it is not WMDs or terrorism.

What can we conclude from this fiasco, other than empty placebos like “try harder,” “get better sources,” or Tenet’s prosaic summary – “we were not completely right, but we were not completely wrong”?

If such errors were randomly distributed, one would expect that these agencies would occasionally drop the ball. But their long-run track record actually reveals that such monumental intelligence failures are nothing new. Indeed, there seems to be a systematic bias toward producing them.


On matters of signals intelligence, where it just comes down to, say, monitoring international wire transfers or Chinese conversations with Pakistani proliferators, presumably the errors have been less frequent – though even there, a variety of new commucations technologies are making the task much more difficult. And on the operations side, they may be good at the occasional “dirty trick," though there, of course, the track record is also filled with screwups.


But the track record on what we might call “strategic insight” has been downright dreadful. As the following list shows, especially where the signals intelligence is weak and real political or economic insight is called for, our “intelligence” agencies seem to have missed almost every critical strategic turning point in recent history. Like the proverbial wiz kids, these folks are “very smart and (almost) always wrong.”

Given this sorry track record, which the UK’s MI6 appears to have duplicated, we just may be tempted to agree with the UK’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who once snapped, “Why don’t we just exchange secrets every week with (our enemies) , and skip all the fucking guesswork?”

In the case of US agencies, in addition to the recent failures already cited , there was also:

  • 1. The 1998 bombings of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan;
  • 2. The failure to predict the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan in the 1990s;
  • 3. The failure to predict Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait;
  • 4. The failure to anticipate the rapid demise of Portuguese colonialism and South African apartheid, and the Soviet Union in the 1980s;
  • 5. The spurious “second missile gap” – the overestimation of Soviet nuclear weapons strength in the early 1980s;
  • 6. The famous October 1978 estimate by the Defense Intelligence Agency, three months before the Shah of Iran’s fall, that “the Shah is expected to remain actively in power over the next ten years;“
  • 7. Innumerable mispredictions with the prospects for Communist victory in Vietnam;
  • 8. The failure to anticipate that the Soviets would deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962;
  • 9. The notorious expectation that the Cuban masses would rise up to support the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion;
  • 10. The spurious “first missile gap” in the late 1950s;
  • 11. The original WMD underestimate – the failure to predict the Soviet Union’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the late 1940s.
  • December 1941’s Pearl Harbor doesn’t count, since there were no intelligence agencies around yet – one of the reasons for establishing them was to avoid such blunders.
  • At the risk of short-circuiting President Bush’s new Commission, let me suggest that much of the systematic bias toward such strategic blunders derives from deep-seated institutional problems. Among the key culprits:

    • The pool of talent that is attracted to careers in intelligence is pretty thin to begin with – Exhibt A being Sr. Tenet himself. My hunch is that if this fine fellow were forced to compete in the private sector, he would wind up as the Director of Competitive Strategy for a very small casino in Nevada. Over time, as the agencies have become larger and more bureaucratic, this problem has no doubt increased -- “intelligence analysis” has become reduced to lifeless, formulaic process, and those who rise to the top and survive are likely to be politically-astute bureaucrats, not creative analysts.
    • That diminishing talent pool has been scattered across more than a dozen warring bureacracies, including CIA, DIA, NSA, NIMC, and the various service intelligence units. This makes it even more difficult for any individual agency’s boss to stand up and resist political pressures.
    • The permeation of the community with “closed source” mythology. "Community" does indeed appear to be the wrong word here -- "den of back-biting snakes," "cat house," or "Dodge City" may be a bit closer to what we're dealing with here. As a representative of the (wonderfully harmonious and cooperative) journalistic (“open source’) approach to understanding the world, I’d love to see a footrace on any given issue between the agencies, with all their secret sources, and a handful of top flight investigative reporters.

    Unfortunately, these problems are unlikely to be solved by one or two commissions or Congressional investigations, or in just a few years. Even a very public firing of Tenet, while deeply gratifying to many people, would only be a superficial response. For the foreseeable future, the only real antidote may be to elect a new President with some real "carrying capacity," some real depth to his own understanding of foreign policy, and yet is also astute enough to realize that the country is ill-served by having the intelligence agencies become lap-dogs for his preconceived ideas.

    (For a helpful if dated history of the miserable track record of British and American intelligence agencies over the long haul, the interested reader is referred to Phillip Knightly, The Second Oldest Profession. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986)).


    © James S. Henry, Submerging Markets, 2004. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent from the author.

    February 9, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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    ...completely miss the role of Pakistan (and perhaps China) in franchising nuclear technology...


    I am wondering what you think of the story Greg Palast distributed yesterday:

    "On November 7, 2001, BBC TV and the Guardian of London reported that the Bush Administration thwarted investigations of Dr. A.Q. Kahn who this week confessed selling atomic secrets to Libya, North Korea, and Iran....Bush did not know of these facts because, shortly after his inauguration, his National Security Agency [effec]tively stymied the probe of Kahn Research Laboratories. CIA and other agents could not investigate the spread of Islamic Bombs through Pakistan because funding appeared to originate in Saudi Arabia".

    Seems crazy to go after Saddam, whom they knew to be weaponless because UNMOVIC told them, while our allies are "running a nuclear secrets bazaar".

    Mmmmmm...maybe the war had to do with oil! Lessening nuclear danger just doesn't rank very high on the list. Some of these "failures" are more like disinterest. The services have much more important objectives than protecting average citizens. --Eric

    Posted by: Eric T Olson at Feb 10, 2004 12:20:11 AM