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Home Front
What’s Wrong With the CIA (Analysis)
Herbert E. Meyer Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2003
EFL and Fair Use
The following is adapted from a lecture at a Hillsdale College seminar titled “The History, Purpose and Propriety of U.S. Intelligence Activities,” held on Sept. 14-18, 2003.
It’s obvious that something is wrong with the CIA. The 9/11 attacks were, by definition, the worst intelligence failure in our country’s history. More recently, we have had trouble locating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and have been consumed by the flap over whether the CIA signed off on President Bush’s accurate observation in his State of the Union speech that British intelligence believes Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium ore in Niger.

In each of these cases, the CIA was asleep at the switch, not quite on the ball, or tossing a banana peel under the president’s feet. In the midst of a war in which intelligence must play a central role, we need a CIA that is razor sharp and playing offense, not one that blindsides the country or embarrasses the commander-in-chief. So what’s the problem? Before answering this question, we need to acknowledge two points:
First, intelligence is the riskiest, toughest business in the world. Compared with trying to project the future of world politics or discovering a country’s most closely guarded secrets, day trading in the stock market is child’s play and exploring for diamonds is a piece of cake. In the intelligence business, no one gets it right every time – or even most of the time – and it’s easy to take potshots at honorable people who are doing their best under difficult circumstances.

The second point is that the CIA employs some of the hardest working and most decent men and women I have ever known. They are absolutely wonderful; we are lucky to have them and we owe them our gratitude.
Problems in Structure and Culture
The problem with the CIA lies within its structure and culture. It doesn’t match the task, because the analytic side of intelligence is unlike any other function of government. It is unlike budget-making, diplomacy, or the setting of policy for trade or agriculture. Intelligence is like science, which means that success depends utterly on having the most brilliant people studying a problem. Only they will know how to go about finding the right answer – and how to communicate it clearly and early enough to make a difference. As geniuses like Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk remind us, in science there is no substitute for sheer intellectual firepower – in other words, for brains. This is why scientific research institutes hire the smartest people they can find, and why they place scientists at the top who are even more brilliant to manage the team and, when necessary, to decide which of their proposed experiments to back and which to stop. That’s why so many leading research institutes are headed by Nobel laureates. And it’s why the big breakthroughs in science come from research institutes rather than government-operated labs.
-- Much More --
Okay Spooks, Ex-Spooks, and Amateur Spooks, have fun! Much of his analysis seems on-target to me, but I’m in that last category...

#6  Old Patriot:

Everything you say sounds right on the money. From my own experience, my job was to get the intel in the field. I left it to the military team to get my sorry butt in and out. But I know lots of guys who tried to "Lord it" over the team that was supposed to get them in and out of an op.

That's not to say I didn;t work with the team(s) I was assigned to, didn;t try to prepare for the physical "rigors" of the mission, nor failed to attend military briefings though I know many field analysts who did all of the above. I always tried to train with the team I was going in with before the mission, tried to attend the briefings, gave what input I could, and took the PT necessary to make sure I was in decent enough physical condition to complete the mission.

Lots of guys didn;t do any of the above. Lots of them succeeded magnificently. Lots more never made it back from an op.

Sometimes, in intel, things go wrong. Usually they do, in fact. An op can be going fabulously successful - and then turn to complete sh*t in a matter of a few heartbeats.

If you're in good shape, in good rapor with your teammates, and have decent, if not perfect intel on the nature of the area, the mission, and the mission's goals, you stand a good chance of surviving an op, even if you get captured.

If, on the other hand, you lose your guts, your goal, your mission, your will, or any of a dozen other things - like the CIA did about 20 years ago, you end up holding your ass in both hands and wondering why the enemy knows everything you're trying to do or everything you know.

Posted by: LC FOTSGreg   2003-10-22 8:27:32 PM  

#5  OP: Great post, thanks.
Posted by: Matt   2003-10-22 7:53:15 PM  

#4  Gotta be careful here - all us old spooks do. There's a fine line between what we can say and what we can't. I'll try to provide the best picture possible without stepping over the line. My comments are more appropriate for military intelligence functions, but in many cases also apply to civilian agencies, from CIA to State, that have their own intel functions.

The major problem with all intelligence agencies - CIA, DIA, military service units, whatever - is the unwillingness of much of the senior leadership to report bad news. That goes from discovering prior mistakes (I.E., we goofed) to telling the president he goofed to "oh, shit, we didn't expect THAT!". There's also the very real problem of non-intelligence people being given positions of leadership in intelligence organizations. If you don't know the language, if you don't know the processes, how the HE$$ can you manage a unit that has to work within those processes every single day? It's like swimming with concrete boots - it just doesn't work. The Air Force and Army are finally getting leadership positions filled with people with the proper experience, but you're still more likely to find an intel unit run by a former flyboy or grunt who has to be given a desk job for some reason than an officer that's grown up within the ranks.

Second problem (I've actually observed this in the Air Force and Army, not so much in the Marines): in the enlisted ranks, there are a lot of very brilliant people actually doing the work. Unfortunately, "Intelligence" doesn't rank among the top jobs in most branches of the military, and the officers assigned are those considered "unfit" for some of the more demanding positions. There are exceptions, but for every exception I can point out five officers that ended up in Intelligence because they were passed over for more "important" jobs, or were de-rated pilots that usually feel like they've been "put out to pasture", and operate that way. That attitude needs to be changed, and quality people assigned to leadership positions in the Intel field. Another, personal sore point, is that Intel is not even considered when making such nice policy decisions as "up or out", longevity, flexibility, or command and control. A sidebar to that is that most commanders don't think too highly of Intel, and treat the grunts in the cages like dirt. I once made a thorough suggestion that the Warrant Officer program be re-introduced in the Air Force, to allow senior NCOs who have proven leadership qualities be allowed to take over officer positions in the field where both experience and officer rank were required. Even though a senior general officer approved of the overall suggestion, it didn't even get an acknowledgment from the "hallowed halls" of the Pentagon. It would have "diluted" the overall officer program to do what both the Army and the Marines do with outstanding results.

Third, the way the civilian world treats military intelligence personnel ("military intelligence is an oxymoron") pushes a lot of people out of the field that otherwise could have proven decisive. Some of the stories I heard from folks inside that were stationed in the DC area during the Clinton administration highlight the problem. The left's problem with intelligence is that it can't control it, so it's got to be bad, and has to be hobbled. I haven't seen a major turnaround in the Bush administration, probably because too many Clinton-era "middle managers" still muddy the water.

Just an anecdote: as a young staff sergeant at Tan Son Nhut in 1971, I reported seeing tank tracks in southern Laos. Ten senior Air Force officers criticized my observations, saying I'd "confused them with bulldozer tracks". A week later, an ARVN unit was attacked by three Russian-made PT-76 amphibious tanks about a hundred miles from where I'd reported the tracks. If you make the best possible determination, backed up with years of experience and personal knowledge, it won't help if the leadership refuses to accept it.

Intel sucks, because everybody dumps on it.
Posted by: Old Patriot   2003-10-22 1:35:35 PM  

#3  I think it's more of a human nature thing...
we tend to see what we want to see
Posted by: dcreeper   2003-10-22 12:19:52 PM  

#2   Other staggerring CIA mistakes include missing Tet Offensive in 1968(whatever knowledge local CIA
personnel may have had,the Agency never told Pres.
or Westmoreland a nation-wide assault was about to be made by Communist forces),getting completely wrong stregnth of Soviet Union economy and what percentage was military,and being clueless about Soviet Union's collapse.With continuing failures large and small(can't identify
Chinese embassies,can't infiltrate Al Queda-even tho dropout can wander over and be meeting top leaders within a couple weeks)there has to be drastic reform of CIA.Personally,I think it should be split into 3 agencies-Operations,Intelligance gathering and Analysis.
Posted by: Stephen   2003-10-22 12:16:09 PM  

#1  They wouldn’t concede that it was the logic of the situation that comprised the evidence, rather than some purloined document from the safe in Leonid Brezhnev’s office.

Humph. I don't think that is a problem just in the intelligence services, I think that is a problem of our time. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that I think that summarizes the very definition of the Democrats...with the exception that the Democrats wound not be willing to accept the document as proof either. The idea that you can just wish for a good result (end hunger, poverty, air pollution) and make it happen without even attempting to forsee any of those pesky logical consequences, is truly a strange phenomenon of our time.
Posted by: B   2003-10-22 10:41:32 AM