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Our Secret American Security State

Charlie Archambault/Polaris
President George W. Bush and other senior government officials touring the National Counterterrorism Center, McLean, Virginia, June 2005

Private companies may usefully contribute to intelligence, particularly in the creation of new technologies. What Priest and Arkin describe, however, often involves the outsourcing of core functions such as intelligence collection, analysis, and covert action. Even if this policy were not financially wasteful, it would be folly. Intelligence work by its nature often confronts the practitioner with moral compromises, in which the extent of a particular compromise must be weighed against a larger mission to protect the public. To add a profit motive to such work is to assure a rise in corruption and misjudgment.

The findings presented by Priest and Arkin are troubling, but they at least suggest possibilities for improvement, for example much stricter limits on the use of private intelligence. The conclusions drawn by Paul R. Pillar, who served for twenty-eight years at the CIA and the National Intelligence Council, are more dispiriting. Pillar argues that reform is a foolish fantasy—indeed, that the perpetual search for reform of American intelligence is one of the system’s main problems. Intelligence and US Foreign Policy is his third book, and it is a fascinating, important, and peculiar volume.

The book essentially has four parts. The first is a brilliant account of the role of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The second is a broader, provocative review of the uses of intelligence—or the absence of such uses—in American foreign policy decision-making, especially at critical moments in postwar history. Pillar then presents a revisionist, defensive, and ultimately unsatisfying account of intelligence and the September 11 attacks. This culminates in an ardent, elaborate denigration of the 9/11 Commission cochaired by former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean and former congressman Lee Hamilton, and particularly its staff director, the historian Philip Zelikow. He argues that the 9/11 Commission used a “badly flawed and highly inaccurate account” of the CIA‘s work on international terrorism before September 11 in order to advance a preconceived plan to reorganize the intelligence agencies. He points out correctly that the commission did not credit as fully as it might have some of the prescient analysis about al-Qaeda and its affiliates produced by Pillar and his colleagues during the 1990s. He also points out accurately that the commission’s bipartisan membership was not as critical as it should have been of the Bush administration’s sluggish reaction to acute CIA warnings about al-Qaeda delivered throughout the first eight months of 2001.

Yet his case overall is selective and overly protective of his former employer. He does not address, for example, the fact that the commission’s eventual best-selling narrative of the September 11 attacks was based in part on information supplied by the CIA, which was obtained from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during interrogations that employed what the Red Cross later described as torture. American courts do not admit evidence obtained under torture not only because it would be unethical but also because such testimony is often unreliable. Pillar offers no sense of whether the torture or the commission’s use of information obtained by torture bothered him. Finally, he reflects on the impulse of outsiders to reform the intelligence bureaucracy, which he sees as delusional.

Pillar’s most important argument is that “the overall influence—for good or for ill—of intelligence on major decisions and departures in US foreign policy has been negligible…. Policy has shaped intelligence more than vice versa.” To make this case, Pillar reviews the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, Henry Kissinger’s “back channel” opening to China, the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, President Jimmy Carter’s response to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and President Ronald Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union.

In all of these instances, Pillar argues, the American intelligence community “had almost no guiding role in great decisions.” Analysis derived from secret information “has played an important supporting role” and it “also has had important things to say on the subjects about which the great decisions were made.” But it did not influence those decisions very much. Domestic politics, the assumptions and prejudices about global affairs held by presidents and their advisers (such as the “domino theory” in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War), and gut instincts have been far more important than reflections upon considered intelligence assessments delivered by the bureaucracy.

In some of the cases Pillar reviews, such as the Vietnam War, he argues that the intelligence analysis available was largely accurate but presidents and their advisers paid it little heed. At other times, when the intelligence was wrong, that didn’t matter, because it too was ignored. The CIA persistently underestimated Mikhail Gorbachev’s willingness to carry out radical reforms, for instance, but Reagan and Secretary of State George Schultz discounted the assessments, preferring their own, more optimistic judgments.

Rather than being influenced by intelligence analysis, Pillar writes, it is more common for presidents and their advisers to subtly shape and distort intelligence reporting through pressure and “politicization.” This provides an underpinning of Pillar’s excellent account of the misuse of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. The story has been told before of how Bush and his advisers decided almost immediately after September 11 to attack Iraq and then used intelligence to sell the war without acknowledging to the public or Congress that the decision to invade had already been made, but Pillar provides a telling and comprehensive new perspective from the inside. After 2000, he was the senior officer on the National Intelligence Council, the country’s leading institution for all-source intelligence analysis. He was responsible for political and economic assessments of the Middle East. He concludes from his direct experience that the Bush administration did not value intelligence about Iraq before the war except as marketing material to justify an invasion already decided upon: “No Bush administration policymaker asked my office for any classified assessment on anything having to do with Iraq until a year into the war.”

While defending his own work as an intelligence analyst, Pillar settles occasionally into a defensive crouch. In the Iraq section of his book, the problem is incidental. In his treatment of the CIA‘s role in warning about the September 11 attacks, however, it is self-defeating. Pillar has a straightforward and defensible case to make. Before September 11, he and others at the CIA provided repeated, loud, and clear strategic warnings about al-Qaeda’s intent to cause mass casualties by attacks on the US. Policymakers, particularly in the Bush administration, took inadequate notice. For all of their urgent strategic warning, however, the intelligence agencies failed to provide any specific, tactical warning about the September 11 conspiracy. Pillar glosses over the failures of CIA analysts to recognize and share information they possessed about two of the hijackers who had entered the United States in 2000—information that, if seized upon and exploited earlier, might have prevented the attacks.

Pillar acknowledges these “specific and unmistakable errors” but does not examine them. In general, he regards harping about failures of tactical warning by the intelligence community as misguided and unrealistic, part of a “spectator sport” played by Congress, journalists, and other armchair spies who fail to appreciate the innate imperfectability of intelligence. He writes:

We should not be surprised to be surprised—and I refer here to tactical surprise, which is harder to reduce, let alone eliminate, than strategic surprise, chiefly because it involves unobservable and perhaps unattainable things such as an adversary’s secret plans.

Yet earlier, two of the September 11 attackers had been observed at a meeting with a dangerous al-Qaeda leader in Malaysia, and the CIA knew they had visas to enter the United States. Agency analysts looked at this reporting but failed to see its significance. Even if we stipulate that the mistakes made by these analysts were owing to overwork and human imperfection, they nonetheless deserve auditing.

Pillar’s insistent modesty about what intelligence can do well is not confined to the subject of tactical warning. Intelligence can “help to manage the uncertainty” inherent in global affairs, he writes. It can also “distinguish true uncertainty from simple ignorance,” and it can “identify possible outcomes” in foreign and defense scenarios “and perhaps give a sense of the relative likelihood of each one.” But that is about it. For this we are expending $81 billion or more a year. Would not a few magazine and newspaper subscriptions suffice?

During the decade after September 11, the overriding mission transmitted by the White House to the intelligence community has been to prevent a major terrorist attack against the United States and to degrade or defeat al-Qaeda. No major attack has occurred and al-Qaeda today is greatly reduced; its longtime leader, Osama bin Laden, is dead because of an American intelligence breakthrough. Counterstrike, by the New York Times national security reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, is a carefully reported, briskly paced account of the counterterrorism campaigns that followed the September 11 attacks, and it provides a reliable sense of what has gone right, without cheerleading or obfuscating about failures. The book is particularly strong on the period since 2007, including the stepped-up effort to dismantle al-Qaeda’s core leadership along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. Schmitt and Shanker bring forward new details about how these intelligence-led operations have worked despite the breakdown in trust between the CIA and the principal Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

Counterstrike argues that as the campaign against al-Qaeda has evolved, American strategists in the intelligence system and at the Pentagon have returned to cold war–era thinking about deterrence derived from the lessons of Soviet containment. Both as strategic analysis and historical analogy this comparison to nuclear deterrence is unconvincing. Al-Qaeda is hardly the Soviet Union. It is reasonable to fear the group’s historical interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction but it is tendentious to equate that threat to the one posed by the Soviet Rocket Forces, which for decades had thousands of actual atomic weapons on hair-trigger alert, pointed at American cities. The notion that we should defend against terrorism by drawing upon the precedents of anti-Soviet deterrence makes sense only if the impulse is understood perversely—as an indicator of how the intelligence and defense bureaucracies rationalize their outsized programs by mustering politically safe precedents for budget writers in Congress.

As Priest and Arkin write, one reason the intelligence system remains so bloated, inefficient, and difficult to oversee a decade after September 11 is because “the government has still not engaged the American people in an honest conversation about terrorism and the appropriate US response to it,” which would involve reappraising al-Qaeda’s strengths and weaknesses more forthrightly, closing “the decade-long chapter of fear” of the unknown in terrorism, and confronting “the colossal sum of money that could have been saved or better spent.”

After September 11, newspaper Op-Ed pages were full of recommendations for radical departures in American intelligence, changes that might place new emphasis on lean and adaptable operations. There was much talk of a long-term development of “human sources of information”; of the need for risk-taking and the bold penetration of what are known in the intelligence agencies as “denied areas,” such as Iran and North Korea. Some of that ambition has been fulfilled; it is difficult to measure how much, since so much of the detail of post–September 11 covert action and intelligence collection remains secret.

What is plain, nonetheless, is that the larger story of the American intelligence system is one of continuity. The bureaucracy has defended itself from outside investigation and oversight and has followed many of the trajectories set during the Eisenhower years. The relative strengths of tactical American intelligence tradecraft today include innovative technology, vacuum cleaner–like collection of electronic data worldwide, computer algorithms that sort valuable information from noise, and the bludgeoning effects on adversaries of huge if wasteful spending. These methods look very similar to those of the anti-Soviet intelligence system. The bureaucracy’s weaknesses—inefficiency, ignorance of local cultures, revolving doors, self-perpetuation, vulnerability to political pressure, and an overall lack of accountability—are deeply familiar, too.

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