America's intelligence system failed to see terrorist threats coming from al-Qaeda prior to September 11 that should have been evident, and then, after 9-11, saw terrorist threats coming from Iraq that didn't exist. A system that doesn't warn of real threats and does warn of unreal ones is broken.
A unanimous and bipartisan report, due out soon from the commission established by Congress to investigate intelligence mistakes leading up to 9-11, is likely to deal harshly with both the CIA and the FBI. Several commissioners have already opined that better intelligence gathering might have prevented the attack. Meanwhile, a unanimous and bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee has discredited the CIA's prewar assessments that Iraq possessed banned chemical and biological weapons and was seeking nuclear arms. Those assessments “either overstated or were not supported by the underlying intelligence,” according to the committee. The senators blamed “a series of failures” of intelligence, failures that occurred because of “shoddy work,” faulty management, outmoded procedures, “group think,” and a “flawed culture.”
What to do? The White House and Congress are sorting through several proposals. One would create a cabinet-level intelligence “czar” with more firm control over the nation's sprawling $40 billion system for collecting and analyzing information about security threats. A second would do just the opposite, removing the CIA director from any control over other intelligence agencies in order to invite more checks and balances. A third would better insulate the director of central intelligence from politics by giving him or her a fixed term of, say, five to seven years. A fourth, and contrary, proposal would make him or her more politically accountable both to the president and to Congress.
Some of these may have merit, but they don't respond to the core lesson. It's that when U.S. foreign policy is based primarily on what our spy agencies say, we run huge risks of getting it disastrously wrong. The lesson isn't new. U.S. intelligence failed to foresee the split between China and the Soviet Union in 1960 and 1961, and thereafter never fully comprehended it. Had U.S. policy been based more on direct diplomacy than covert operations, we might have avoided the shameful and costly Vietnam War. The CIA was also notoriously wrong when it told John F. Kennedy that its plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs “could not fail,” and it misread Soviet intentions before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. And we wildly exaggerated Soviet defense capabilities in the 1980s, leading the United States to spend hundreds of billions of dollars for no reason (the U.S.S.R. collapsed under its own weight, not Ronald Reagan's military buildup).
By all means, let's have better intelligence. But better intelligence is not a substitute for better policy. This is especially true when the threat comes in the form of terrorism. Terrorism, as I have emphasized, is a tactic. It is not itself our enemy. There is no finite number of terrorists in the world. At any given time, their number depends on how many people are driven by anger and hate to join their ranks. Hence, “smoking out,” imprisoning, or killing terrorists, based on information supplied by our intelligence agencies, cannot be the prime means of preventing future terrorist attacks on the United States. More important is dealing with the anger and hate. This means, among other things, restarting the Middle East peace process -- rather than, as George W. Bush has done, running away from it. It requires shoring up the economies of the Middle East. And it means strengthening the legitimacy of moderate Muslim leaders, instead of encouraging extremism -- as the current administration's policies have undoubtedly done.
Equally fatuous is the notion that “preemptive wars” against nations our intelligence agencies have identified as likely adversaries will offer us much protection. Terrorists aren't dependent on a few rogue nations. They recruit and train in unstable parts of the world with weak or nonexistent governments, and they can move their bases and camps easily. The United States cannot control or police the world. Instead, we will have to depend on treaties and alliances to prevent illegal distribution of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The current administration's “go-it-alone” diplomacy takes us in precisely the wrong direction.
That the United States suffers from a failure of intelligence is indisputable. But the calamitous state of our spy agencies is only one part of that failure.