European Affairs

Failures of U.S. Intelligence: Americans Must Become Better Spies     Print Email

The scars left on America by the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the grim casualty tolls have affected the national psychology in a way comparable only to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

"Days of Infamy" are few and far between but both of these tragic dates qualify. Sixty years after Pearl Harbor, through world war and cold war, history repeats itself.

But vengeance must be tempered with wisdom and prudence, and these require intelligence in its broadest dimension. The aftermath of Pearl Harbor produced a massive search for the reasons "why" and, even more importantly, "how." Dozens of congressional and other inquiries took place during and after the war and, to this day, there is still serious debate as to how the attack could have occurred, including conspiracy theories and accusations of incompetence in the highest places.

The debate on the whys and hows of September 11 has only begun. But the effectiveness of our ability to deprive the terrorists of their motivation to fight and their ability to attract future recruits depends heavily on accurate answers to these questions.

The failure of U.S. intelligence is part of the problem. Given the extent of that failure, we face the prospect of a significant reform of American intelligence in the coming campaign against terrorism. In his televised address of September 20, President George W. Bush was explicit on this point: "We will come together to strengthen our intelligence capabilities to know the plans of terrorists before they act and to find them before they strike," he said.

Perhaps the greatest source of American weakness in intelligence is the nature of our open society itself and its historic resistance against "spying" and the clandestine aspects of national security. This defect is generic to the American political culture, once colorfully described by President Herbert Hoover's Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson, with the memorable phrase that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail." That lack of sophistication in national security may seem quaint today, but the underlying political culture that produced it remains the same and lies at the root of the failure to anticipate or detect September 11.

American society remains decentralized in almost every serious way, in politics, economics, religion, race and nationality. Its resources lie in communities and in the innate self-sufficiency of localities. American openness has produced the "melting pot" and it is common in urban areas today for public school enrollments to have a foreign-born majority.

The ideals behind the open society have historically been a source of strength and admiration, but these same virtues leave us much more vulnerable to the scourge of terrorism than a society with closed borders and restricted political systems. But major wars are not laissez faire events. They are waged by powerful governments and angry populations and, historically, have evidenced little toleration for even the appearance of dissent. Furthermore, serious wars require domestic intelligence and serious internal security measures.

Given the pluralism of American society it may prove difficult to conduct a true war against terrorism - especially internally - at least in the way war has been commonly understood. In the coming months and years it will be critical to overhaul U.S. security systems and intelligence facilities without undue restrictions on the liberties of the populace, including the millions of Arabs and Muslims who reside in peace with their fellow Americans.

There can be no denial that the limitations on U.S. intelligence were a major invitation to those who planned and executed the attacks. Subsequent intercepts, days after the tragedy, led to Osama bin Laden, but the continuing ambiguity regarding the full network is one of the more critical differences between this event and Pearl Harbor. It also is one of the chief problems surrounding a possible formal declaration of war.

The roots of the problem have other dimensions. The United States has abundant technologies to collect intelligence all over the world, including telemetry, radio signals and a variety of other electronic emissions. We can target and destroy objects from immense distances. There are mechanisms in place ranging from x-ray screens and satellites that could have indicated terrorist alerts. What was notably missing was sufficient human intelligence to help us maximize the utility of our technical means. And why were these absent? Among several explanations was that proffered by intelligence veteran, Lieutenant General Patrick M. Hughes (Ret.), who told The Washington Times on September 16, "We lacked the will to do the right thing."

Unlike Pearl Harbor, the attacks were not entirely a strategic surprise. There were a number of early warnings, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center itself. A landmark study published in 1999, co-chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, predicted that "Americans will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland." As Rudman told The Washington Post in a September 22 interview, "We Americans have an ability to procrastinate until we get hit on the head by a 2-by-4."

The background to the immediate problems besetting U.S. intelligence can be traced to 1975, when certain CIA operational methods (such as use of the Mafia and assassination efforts) resulted in a political backlash. Calling the agency a "rogue elephant on the rampage," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Frank Church (D-ID) severely restricted both covert overseas operations and their domestic counterparts, including investigative and surveillance capabilities.

On the House side, the Intelligence Committee chaired by Otis Pike (D-NY) was doing the same thing. The FBI's counter-intelligence operations (such as penetration of the Weather Underground) were impaired when Attorney General Benjamin Levi issued regulations applying the so-called "criminal standard" to domestic intelligence, which in effect tied the hands of counter-intelligence operations. During this same period, President Ford signed an executive order prohibiting the assassination of foreign leaders. In the Carter Administration the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), Stansfield Turner, slashed human intelligence (humint) even further and fired over 800 of the agency's most experienced officers.

The problem here, of course, is that international con§ict and the potential violent actions of enemies involve acts of war and not domestic criminal acts, a point which politicians of that period ignored. Foreign intelligence rarely involves and almost never requires such dispositive proof of the kind required by American judicial rules of evidence. Decisions on when and where to go to battle must often be made on the basis of highly imperfect information that must be acted upon too quickly to be able to provide court-room standards of proof.

In 1995 further restrictions on humint were imposed on the CIA, led then by John Deutch. The sum total of these and other prohibitions made it difficult - if not impossible - to penetrate terrorist groups by figures who could be intimate with the inner workings of the network. We had unilaterally legally prohibited ourselves from using journalists, clergymen, aid workers (including Peace Corps volunteers) and human rights violators as sources of intelligence. Too many American intelligence officers were restricted to operating under embassy cover, presenting hostile governments with a relatively easy task of identifying the officers in question.

In June 2000, the National Commission on Terrorism, created following the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies, issued a blistering criticism of these restrictions. Headed by former State Department Ambassador-At-Large for Counterterrorism, L. Paul Bremer III, the Commission concluded that because "priority one" is to prevent attack, "it is sometimes necessary to recruit individuals who themselves have committed terrorist acts or have engaged in human rights violations."

The Commission further condemned the U.S. practice of setting up "complex procedures" for recruitment of on-the-ground operatives. Recruiting informants, the Commission emphasized, "is not tantamount to condoning their prior crimesƒThe longstanding process in place before 1995 provided managers with adequate guidance to judge the risks of going forward with any particular recruit." Tragically, well over a year after its publication, the findings of this panel remain idle - a haunting symbol of a nation which still suspects the intelligence profession to be somehow unsavory.

The revival and reform of U.S. intelligence faces another cultural impediment: our preoccupation with domestic pursuits of celebrity, amusement and prosperity - habits not always conducive to serious thought about the defense of civilization. One is reminded here of the Roman historian, Livy, and his observation that a sure way to defeat a foreign adversary is to spread among his population ideas of selfishness and hedonism - attributes that weaken a nation's immune system and its capacity to detect and resist external attack.

The first step in the necessary revival of our intelligence capabilities is education - to appreciate that the collection and use of information is a many-faceted and complex necessity if the United States expects to survive the century. The next steps §ow from this and will require several layers of reform.

The structure of the intelligence community and the way it produces its estimates is a central issue. National intelligence estimates have historically been consensus documents that achieve a lowest common denominator among various agencies. There are few incentives to stray from conventional wisdom and those who do are relegated to a footnote in the major estimates. There is a strong case to be made for competitive analysis that rewards those whose record proves superior.

The administrative bureaucracy that oversees America's 13 main intelligence agencies will require a major overhaul. The problem of overlap and confusion infects the entire government, but the same problem in the intelligence field can mean life or death for society as a whole. The issue is particularly acute with Defense Intelligence, the largest and most important within the structure.

Actually the term, Defense Intelligence, itself is a misnomer. There is no such organization as Defense Intelligence. There is no one in overall charge of all of these large, disparate organizations - except perhaps the Secretary of Defense, who is far too busy to manage them on a daily basis. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence acknowledged this point in a report issued on September 19, warning that the intelligence community as a whole is "presently hindered by cultural, bureaucratic, resource, training and, in some cases, legal obstacles."

The administrative and organizational reform of the intelligence community is a vast problem that will require a very long period of realignment. Recognition is the first step in this protracted journey.

More specifically, the Senate Committee has urged reforms to improve financial intelligence so as to dry up the resources of terrorist networks. It called upon the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, and Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, to make better use of the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center as a basis for greater cooperation in this area.

In a related proposal, Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-FL), has offered a set of proposals for legislation to establish a National Virtual Translation Center, which would "link secure locations maintained by the intelligence community throughout the country and apply digital technology to network, store, retrieve and catalogue the audio and textual information." Graham's plan addressed a long-standing problem - the lack of cultural, linguistic and other forms of appreciation of an adversary, a problem that beset the conduct of both world wars and the cold war. That problem is still with us: belatedly, on September 17, the FBI offered between $27 and $38 an hour for qualified Arabic, Farsi and Pashto linguists.

The absence of linguistic ability is the tip of an iceberg - the failure to harness the vast knowledge of foreign cultures that we possess in our government and academic communities. Too much intelligence analysis focuses on measurable categories - arms, finances, etc. - categories measurable by value-neutral social science methodologies.

But the intentions and purposes of adversaries are not value neutral and are rarely quantifiable. Divining them requires knowledge of national character, ideologies, religions and political cultures - elusive and ethereal categories not amenable to "scientific" inquiry but that require true expertise. For an analyst to develop that expertise and make judgements on it is a high-risk, low-reward pursuit in the U.S. intelligence community. This situation must be reversed.

Then there is the problem of applying the methods of foreign intelligence to the presence of terrorists on our own soil. The President's creation of the Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security is intended to serve as the focal point for these internal security issues. This office, coordinating with the main intelligence agencies, ought to wage a vigorous and far-§ung campaign, using the types of resources and creativities that have been employed in past emergencies.

What else needs to be done? First, there must be a dramatic rise in the current $30 billion intelligence budget. Second, the restrictions hampering the use of human intelligence must be erased. Remote sensors cannot substitute for on-the-ground operations, agents able to penetrate and report on the daily plans and movements of the enemy. Spies have won wars before and can win this one as well.

Third, greater but discriminating use of allied foreign intelligence services is necessary. Fourth, private industry should be required to share with government the "keys" to encryption technologies so that intelligence services, when given case-by-case legitimate legal authority, can intercept and de-crypt enemy communications, especially over the internet. This will require significant cooperation, particularly within NATO but with other countries as well. Fifth, defenses must be upgraded against cyberterrorism, including the hardening of communications networks, command centers and global satellites. Sixth, counterintelligence capabilities must be strengthened.

The war against terrorism will be a long, global and protracted campaign. Some predict years, others decades. This time terrorism struck America but it also claimed the lives of nationals from over 60 other countries. Many of our European allies have been victims of terrorist attacks, but the scale of September 11 has no precedent.

Over the course of the 20th century the United States came to the aid of Europe on a number of occasions, including crises of famine and warfare. We now find a situation of a different magnitude but one that will require the same kind of cooperative dedication that resolved the crises of the past. Just weeks ago the difference in policies and positions seemed overwhelming.

They are still with us, but now there is perspective, and now Europe is poised to assist the American people - particularly in the realm of intelligence. As this mutually beneficial association based on common values, ideals and aspirations has determined the historic course of the 20th century, it now stands ready to determine the course of the new one as well.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.

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