Conventional wisdom used to be that U.S. intelligence was the lifeblood of the War on Terror. By 2004 no one contested that intelligence, especially the CIA, was at the heart of policies that had failed to stem terrorism and had turned military victory in Iraq into embarrassment. The high level commissions that examined current failures began to suspect that these reflected long-standing, basic faults. They only scratched the surface. In fact, U.S. intelligence in all its functions — collection, quality control (otherwise known as counterintelligence), analysis, and covert action — is hindering America’s war.
The public, accustomed in recent years to stories of botched anti-Saddam coups, had learned that CIA covert action works only in the movies. But in the summer of 2004 newspaper readers were shocked by the CIA’s admission to Senate investigators that it had precisely zero agents in Iraq in the years prior to the invasion, because getting and keeping agents in such places is tough. Was it not the CIA’s job to have agents in tough places?
The attentive public also remembered that the president had struck specific bunkers at the start of the Iraq war because the CIA’s most valued sources assured us Saddam was staying there. But U.S. troops inspecting the wreckage had found neither Saddam nor bunkers. Wasn’t the CIA supposed to know enough not to help play America for a sucker? The commissions seemed most impressed that the CIA had translated scarce and bad information into misleading analyses without dissent. Groupthink, they called it. Voters and taxpayers wonder how an institution in which so many had placed so much trust could suddenly have been found to be such a loser.
TO THOSE CLOSE TO the intelligence business, however, such things are an old story. There never was a golden age of the CIA. Its performance against terrorism is not so different from what it was during the Cold War.
Not least of the CIA’s problems, then as now, has been its preference for influencing U.S. policy over striving for clarity about the outside world. It has done so by substituting its many judgments for the few hard facts it has. Phrases like “we believe…” and “we have no conclusive evidence that…” (longhand for yes and no) conveyed its prejudices to policymakers and favored media alike, feeding strife in American politics. Because the CIA vouched for the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, the Bush team chose “disarmament” as the official justification for invading that country. The Democrats campaign against the Bush team for believing the CIA on WMDs (as they themselves believed it), but also for disbelieving its judgment that Iraqi intelligence was not connected with 9/11 — because the Democrats themselves want to disbelieve. Such quarrels becloud the essential question: Who are the people whose death will free us from terror?
Now all agree that the CIA fouled up, and all are foursquare for reform. But the main proposals embraced by Democrats and Republicans with equal mindlessness, consist of rearranging bureaucratic wiring diagrams. It is anyone’s guess how such “reform” would increase knowledge of the outside world, instill the self-criticism necessary for quality control, produce intellectual rigor out of wanton analytical sloppiness, or turn U.S. covert action from bloody opera buffa to a serious instrument of policy. Just as important, no one seems to have asked whether any intelligence system imaginable could bring success to the current policy of trying to discover individual terrorists before they strike.
To consider what it would take to turn U.S. intelligence into an asset in the war on terror, we must first look at its basic problems.
U.S. intelligence has never had more than a few sources of human reporting of which it could be certain, and the capabilities of U.S. technical collection devices, both imaging and electronic, are too well known.
Money has never been the problem with the CIA’s espionage. Its clandestine service has some 2,500 “case officers” abroad. But this “clandestine” service is clandestine in name only. Ninety-eight percent of its officers are spooks only to the point of claiming they report to some part of the U.S. government other than the CIA. The 2 percent super spooks hide their connection to the U.S. government but make no attempt to hide the fact that they are Americans. Rather than prowling the back alleys pretending to be Ruritanian arms dealers, or using identities of convenience to worm information out of unwitting sources, CIA officers are limited to the kinds of contacts that U.S. embassy personnel have. Because personnel standards at the CIA are lower than for the Foreign Service, the quality of CIA reporting seldom has equaled that of the State Department.
In Iraq they live and work behind a screen of American soldiers. Everywhere they deal either through translators or with English-speaking foreigners. They know languages even less than diplomats, or the substance of any subject matter that would lead to natural contact with sources. As for work that requires the use of weapons, CIA policy has always been to hire contractors. In sum, the CIA’s concept of its case officers as gentleman spies is the wrong concept, resulting in a service full of the wrong people.
Their relationship with spies typically consists of managing relations with foreigners who seek them out — so-called walk-ins. The chief problem here is figuring out whether self-proposed agents are really working for a hostile intelligence service. That problem is most serious when foreign intelligence services themselves are providing information. This is especially so regarding terrorism, since Arab governments — whose agendas run counter to America’s — supply a substantial portion of the CIA’s information on it. The smelliest information comes from “interrogations” conducted by ignoramus officers, of prisoners who may or may not know anything but who are constrained to say something.
Collection by various kinds of cameras and electronic intercepts suffers from problems not entirely dissimilar. The CIA wallpapered its lobby with a drawing of downtown Moscow copied from satellite photos, showing every building. Its implication, added to the well-advertised fact that the best resolution of satellite photography could theoretically read license plates, gives the impression of omniscience. The equally well-advertised fact that U.S. antennas on satellites, on land, sea, and air, intercept billions of communications strengthens that impression. Theoretically, these antennas can also tell when a truck’s engine is on, among other things. Yet cameras and antennas are much less useful than they seem, especially with regard to terrorism.
Satellites travel paths and cover areas at times that are predictable years in advance. They neither see beneath roofs nor into the hearts of men. Hiding from high altitude photography is child’s play, as is spoofing it. The U.S. and Britain misrepresented D-Day preparations to confuse German aircraft, the Soviets prevented U.S. satellites from seeing anything of its fourth generation missiles except holes in the ground that may or not have been filled, and during the Gulf War Saddam Hussein managed to hide from satellites and aircraft every last one of the mobile Scud launchers that hit Israel and U.S. troops. When the U.S. government has struck terrorism on the basis of satellite reconnaissance, its bombs and missiles have destroyed empty mud huts. “Pounding sand” is what the Pentagon calls it. When the Pentagon used satellites to pick targets for its “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq in 2003, it ended up destroying empty buildings.
Electronic intercepts are even more problematic. Theoretically, if the enemy does not know that his electronic messages are intercepted, we can read them. And if the enemy does know, he must choose between having them intercepted and not sending them. In fact, just as in the case of satellites, the enemy can use his knowledge to give us the impressions he wishes, while sending messages either non-electronically or through means he knows are safe. The Soviets long ago developed unbreakable codes. Most governments and serious criminals nowadays have them. Mere individuals as well as governments use multiple cell phone numbers or calling cards from public phones for real communications, while our enemies call between phones they know are monitored to watch in glee as we scramble with security measures.