Thomas Powers: U.S. Intelligence Problems Rooted in Past

Roundup: Historians' Take

Thomas Powers, in the New York Times (June 22 2004):

Recent staff reports from the 9/11 commission, soon to be followed by the results of a Senate investigation into flawed intelligence before the invasion of Iraq, lend powerful new support to conclusions long fermenting in official Washington: American intelligence is broken, and the moment is ripe to do something about it.

Prominently at stake in any reorganization will be the title and job description of the director of central intelligence, the post soon to be vacated by George Tenet. Successful reform will require three things: more independence for the C.I.A., fewer distractions for the person running it, and some way to divide up the whole intelligence pie while compelling our myriad organizations to cooperate.

Change will not be easy or automatic — presidents and directors of central intelligence both like the way things are arranged now, and the C.I.A. has weathered many storms in the past. What promises to make the difference this time are the succeeding body blows of the full reports from the 9/11 commission and the Senate due later in the summer. Mr. Tenet is reported to have told friends that he is not being chased out of his job"by a piece of paper," but it seems clear that neither he nor the White House was looking forward to weeks of explaining why the C.I.A. missed things it ought to have seen before Sept. 11 and then conjured up stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that weren't there.

Intelligence errors so glaring inevitably raise two urgent questions: how could the C.I.A. have failed so completely on questions central to its mission? And what can be done to ensure it never happens again?

Chapter and verse on the C.I.A.'s failures will come first in the two official reports, followed eventually by a list of recommendations for improving American intelligence from senators and commissioners. But too long a list will diffuse attention and weaken resolve. The challenge facing reformers is not to tighten every loose nut and bolt, but to identify what is really broken and come up with ways to fix what matters most.

Three years of official studies, public debate and news reporting on 9/11 and Iraq, amply backed up by the history of secret intelligence during the cold war, suggest that the many dysfunctions of American intelligence may be reduced to two: resistance to cooperation between separate intelligence organizations (especially between the C.I.A. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation); and the tendency of intelligence officials and organizations to interpret thin or ambiguous evidence to support the assumptions or desires of the next official or organization up the chain of command.

A frequently cited example of the latter was the ability of Air Force intelligence, beginning in the 1940's, to repeatedly find evidence of dangerous new Soviet bombers or missiles that urgently required research and development of whatever was at the top of the Air Force wish list. Naturally, Air Force intelligence officers never admitted this systematic abuse of the evidence — just as C.I.A. officers from George Tenet on down vigorously deny now that analysts devised scary claims about Iraqi weapons because that was what the White House wanted. But the pattern is the same, and in the long run in the intelligence world, as elsewhere, bosses get what they want....

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