A Different Kind of Intelligence Failure
By ADLAI E. STEVENSON III
Published: April 17, 2004
CHICAGO - Intelligence failures are to blame, so we are told, for the
tragedy of 9/11 and the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq. If the Bush
administration had heeded its intelligence agencies, say its opponents, it
might have prevented the 9/11 attacks and avoided its mishaps in Iraq.
Administration officials, meanwhile, say that their intelligence was either
not accurate or not "actionable." This finger-pointing reflects
misconceptions about the nature of intelligence - and suggests an
intelligence failure of a different sort.
If one looks closely enough, there is generally a chance to see what lies
ahead. For instance, shortly after the Six Day War in 1967, I trailed
Israel's troops into the West Bank and Golan Heights and visited a
Palestinian refugee camp. Ten years later I returned. By then - especially
after Israel announced its plans to build settlements in the West Bank -
anyone with experience in the region could foresee the dangers to come.
When I was in the Senate, I conducted a study of terrorism, which concluded
in 1979 with predictions of "spectacular acts of disruption and destruction"
in the United States and proposals for preventing them. These
recommendations required no use of foreign intelligence. Similarly, the
chaos in Iraq should come as no surprise to anyone with knowledge of Iraq, a
quasi-state of tribes, religions, sects, ethnicities and foreign interests
carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire.
Foreign intelligence supports foreign policy. Its priorities are determined
by policy makers. Sometimes the products of foreign intelligence are
tailored to fit the preconceptions of policy makers. Intelligence is often
flawed. The intelligence agencies have conflicting and overlapping missions,
lack central responsibility and are overwhelmed with information, much of it
technical. It requires "production" - often without the necessary regional
specialists and linguists.
Investigating the Iran intelligence failure in the late 1970's, I learned
that the C.I.A. had no analyst who spoke Farsi. The agencies rely on foreign
intelligence services, which support the policies of their own governments.
Foreign policy in the Bush administration reflects a lack of experience in
the real world away from a Washington overrun with armchair polemicists and
think-tank ideologues. Too many inhabitants of this world have no experience
in the military, where one learns to expect the unexpected, or in
international finance, where America's vulnerability also resides. This
White House is well known for its hostility to curiosity and intellectual
After all, terrorism is not a phenomenon of recent origin. Gavrilo Princip,
the Serb nationalist who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, did not
expect his gunshot to bring about the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
He expected only a reaction - and the empire's reaction led to World War I
and its own downfall. The United States government's reaction to the attacks
of 9/11 could end up inflicting great damage on America.
The Bush administration demonstrates the point. One pre-emptive war against
the dictator of a desert quasi-state crippled by international sanctions has
stretched the American military thin. The United States is widely perceived
to be waging war against Islam in the Middle East, a perception reinforced
by the president's decision this week to support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
of Israel and his settlement plan.
Meanwhile, the dollar - a barometer of confidence in the American economy
and polity - has sunk against other currencies. In Spain, Argentina,
Germany, South Korea and Pakistan, candidates win public office by
denouncing or distancing themselves from the Bush administration. This
record owes nothing to failures of intelligence.
Studies have recommended reforms of the intelligence community. But reform
does not change the limited nature and function of intelligence. There is no
substitute for the pragmatic intelligence of policy makers acquired from
history and experience in the real world - and the courage to act on it.
Before 9/11, neoconservatives like Condoleezza Rice, the national security
adviser, and Vice President Dick Cheney inhabited a world of contending
great powers in which force and technology were transcendent. Terrorists
armed with box cutters - and now Iraqis resisting the occupation - have
exploded their fantasy. The failures of the Bush administration are not
those of foreign intelligence but of a cerebral sort of intelligence.
Adlai E. Stevenson III is a former United States senator from Illinois.