Can the CIA be saved?

Military analysis.
July 9 2004 7:06 PM

Red Herrings

Can the CIA be saved?

Tenet: too late now
Tenet: too late now

The CIA screwed up. That's the ho-hum summation of the Senate Intelligence Committee's 512-page report, released with fanfare today after a 12-month inquiry (a duration "without precedent," beamed the Republican chairman, Pat Roberts). The report uncorks a geyser of detail about the agency's failures but keeps the two most important questions of the day bottled up: Did the CIA's mistakes, especially about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, stem from political pressures? And what can be done to improve the agency's handling of warnings and threats now?

On the first question, the committee, to its shame, played word games. The report—approved unanimously—states there were no political pressures; the Bush administration went to war on the basis of CIA estimates, which turned out to be mistaken. But at this morning's press conference, the committee's ranking Democrat, John D. Rockefeller IV, said it all depends what the meaning of "pressures" is. True, nobody told the CIA to toughen its analysis of Iraq's nuclear program. But, he said, there was clearly an "environment of intense pressure" from the White House and the Pentagon.

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Chairman Roberts promised such matters would be explored further after more hearings—or, as others prefer to interpret this timetable, after the presidential election.

As for the second question, how to repair the CIA after the nation's biggest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, both men cleared their throats forthrightly. "There must be reform," Roberts intoned. "We intend to examine closely all proposals for change, while avoiding the law of unintended consequences." Rockefeller practically pounded the podium: "We've got to do it right, but we've got to do it fast."

Good to see they've got that straight after three years of mulling.

Yes, yes, it's easy to be snarky. Dozens of commissions and scholars, even a president or two, have set out to renovate the creaky mansion of the U.S. intelligence "community" with all its insular inhabitants—the CIA, DIA, NSA, FBI, NRO, etc., to say nothing of their various subcultures wriggling about in the attic and the cellar—and have come away shaking just from the preliminary inspection.

In other words, this one is—to pile another cliché on the plethora—a tough nut to crack.

First, let us deal with a common, but terrible, proposal for reform—"red teams." The idea is to hire a team of "contrarian analysts" who challenge every major intelligence estimate just to make sure that all the right questions have been asked and all the possible interpretations have been contemplated.

The idea comes from war games, in which independent (often retired) officers are assigned to play the role of the enemy commander (the "red team")—and are explicitly told to devise unusual tactics—against the real U.S. commander (in the game, the "blue team"). It's a good idea for war planning; used properly, it tests the flexibility of our armed forces, trains senior officers to deal with surprise, and keeps them from getting trapped in "group-think."

For intelligence analysis, the idea is doomed to be a diversion at best, a source of huge strain at worst. The classic case of CIA red teaming is the "Team B" exercise in 1976, toward the end of Gerald Ford's presidency. A group of hawkish defense analysts were complaining that the CIA was far too dovish in its analysis of the Soviet nuclear threat. George H.W. Bush, who was CIA director at the time, reluctantly agreed to let them set up a Team B to examine the same raw intelligence data from a different angle—it would just be an interesting exercise, he was assured—and soon regretted the indulgence. Team B concluded that the Soviets were developing charged-particle-beam missile defenses, had bigger and more accurate warheads, were spending a lot more money on offensive warfare, and intended to launch a disarming first strike against U.S. nuclear forces. Team B's leaders then leaked their findings to the press, and, when Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976, used the resulting stories to bash every effort at arms control and détente. In 1980, Ronald Reagan adopted the attacks as his own and hired many of its authors or popularizers as high-ranking defense officials.

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