America Can't Afford the Intelligence Community's Weaknesses

President Obama faces very tough decisions. How to decide a strategy for Afghanistan and what to do about would-be atomic powers North Korea and Iran among them.  But the president will probably not get the necessary and timely intelligence he needs to make these decisions because our intelligence community isn’t structured or given the tools it needs to deliver the best information.

The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs seem to defy our intelligence community’s best efforts.  Two years ago — in a highly-publicized “National Intelligence Estimate” (NIE) — our intelligence agencies mistakenly declared that Iran stopped its atomic weaponization program in 2003.  We now know that assessment was wrong.  Similarly, Pyongyang keeps surprising our intelligence community with atomic tests, enrichment programs and new missiles.   

These crises continue to worsen which makes reliable and timely intelligence more important every day.  Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Unless we act decisively and act now, the situation [with Iran] may deteriorate catastrophically and irreversibly.”  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in South Korea where he said North Korea poses a grave threat to international peace and pledged the U.S. will maintain a nuclear deterrent in the region.

To understand these challenges presidents often turn to a National Intelligence Estimate, a compilation (to the lowest common denominator) of the consensus of the intelligence community’s views.  But the NIE has a mixed record which should alert President Obama to proceed with caution.  He must recognize intelligence’s limitations.

The NIE is the U.S. intelligence community’s most authoritative and coordinated assessment of national security issues.  These documents cover a wide range of issues and most remain classified, but the few declassified reports paint a spotty picture. 

Most older NIEs (on issues like Soviet capabilities and the Vietnam War) tended to be accurate, but there were some notable NIE failures.  In 1963, the NIE failed to anticipate Russia would put missiles in Cuba.  A 1973 estimate missed the Yom Kippur War and another in 1978 missed predicting the fall of the Shah of Iran.  A year before he invaded Kuwait, a 1989 NIE estimated Saddam Hussein would not instigate military action for three years.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were not anticipated by an NIE (or any other intelligence that was sufficient to have allowed us to interdict the attacks).  After the fact, Americans asked themselves how our expansive intelligence community missed all the indicators that al Qaeda was staging an assault.

The most controversial NIE in recent years was produced in 2002 to estimate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.  President Bush cited that estimate to make the case for war.  The report said Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program” and “has chemical and biological weapons.” 

But the 2002 Iraq NIE had serious flaws.  A 2004 Senate Select Intelligence Committee report found that “most of the major judgments” were “either overstated, or were not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting.” The Senate committee said the report’s authors relied on old data, used old assumptions, failed to challenge conclusions and interpreted “…ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program.”  There was also a lack of reliable information from sources — read spies — inside Iraq.  And even if there had been spies inside Iraq, most experts doubt that they would have been able to report any differently due to the very small circle that knew the truth about Iraqi WMD.

The Iraq NIE debacle influenced lawmakers to change the NIE production process.  Congress required more interagency collaboration, mandated review of sources and inserted a process to force the agencies to explain their differences. 

These changes failed the country when it came to drafting the 2007 NIE regarding Iran’s atomic program.  That estimate asserted with “high confidence” that Tehran had “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003.  But just last month the White House shocked the world with the revelation that Iran is building a secret military site to enrich uranium and the U.S. has known about that facility for years. 

The claim that the U.S. has known about the secret site for years could suggest the 2007 NIE was wrong.  It’s possible that site and other information about Iran’s secret weapons program were ignored by the NIE authors.  But why would the authors ignore important facts?  The Wall Street Journal claimed at the time that the NIE’s three chief authors were “hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials.”  They allegedly wanted the report to have a “cooling effect” on the issue.

The 2007 estimate also put the U.S. at odds with its counterparts in Britain, Germany and Israel.  The Wall Street Journal Europe reported that a May 2008 German intelligence report “showed comprehensively” that “development work on nuclear weapons can be observed in Iran even after 2003.”   Even the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, concluded Iran “…has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device.”

Obviously, the NIE process needs improvement but that process  is symptomatic of a troubled and under resourced intelligence system.  Here are four changes that could improve it.

First, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should resume responsibility for producing the NIE.  Currently, the NIE ends up as the old joke that describes a camel as a racehorse built by a committee.  The intelligence community’s 16 “equal” members are not really equal contributors.  Only two of the members are analytic (the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency), the others are data collectors who try to be analysts.  Besides, the group process brings together competing organizational agendas, institutional equities and personal reputations. 

The end product is slow to deliver and a heavily nuanced document full of ambiguities where it should be definite and definite when it should be couched in qualifications.  In short, it is a political — not an intelligence — product.

Most importantly, intelligence “consumers” — from the president on down, and including the chiefs of staff of the military services — should regularly challenge the intelligence agencies on their findings.  If the producers have to face tougher consumers, the product will have to improve.

Second, the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) should be eliminated.  The DNI is just another layer between the president and the intelligence organizations.  He has more than 1,500 staff members who decide what the president sees and what analysis should be done.  Yet, he has no authority to manage the community; move money or personnel.  All intelligence organizations except the CIA are controlled by their respective department heads who report to the president.

Third, we need to improve our collection and analytic efforts.  The Clinton administration gutted the clandestine service by grossly underfunding the agency and refusing to hire.  The lack of experienced spies is a major shortfall which will take decades to fix.  No wonder we are operating virtually blind in places like Iran and North Korea.

We have plenty of satellite imagery and electronic intelligence data but too few people to interpret it.  These jobs require people with highly perishable technical skills.  Unfortunately, many of these positions were permanently lost after the Cold War when the Army and Air Force virtually abandoned the imagery and listening business.   That shortfall continues today.

The work load on our intelligence analysts is much larger than ever before.  The advent of the Internet and growing demands of policy makers exponentially increased the volume of information the typical analyst must respond to or study.  We either reduce their load or increase their numbers.

Finally, everyone must recognize that America’s openness is an intelligence liability.  We should become more cautious about announcing our capabilities such as satellite paths posted on the Internet which cause our enemies to hide as our birds fly overhead.  Remember it’s far easier and cheaper to create a countermeasure than to build a capability.

America needs the best intelligence possible to make tough decisions such as what to do about atomic weapons-seeking North Korea and Iran.  It’s in our country’s best interest to re-assess the NIE process, dump or redesign the DNI, hire sufficient spies, analysts and technical interpreters and all Americans need to do a much better job of minimizing our intelligence liabilities.