National Review       p. 28            Aug 3, 1998

Know Nothings
U. S. intelligence failures stem from too much information,
not enough understanding.


Mr Hillen, an NR contributing editor, is the Olin Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. As the discussions grew frustrating, one senior official noted the sticking point. Over the past several years, NATO had learned what made Milosevic tick, but it knew little, if anything, about the KLA, its plans, leadership, methods, or supporters. "We need to do a lot more work," the official noted, to figure out who the KLA is and how it works. After all, if one is in the business of sending signals, one must be relatively sure who the party being signaled is and whether he understands the signals and rules of the game. He might, after all, be playing by different rules. But who's to know?

Similarly, who's to know what is happening on the Indian subcontinent? The double surprise of India's nuclear tests in May brought on the usual round of CIA-bashing in Washington and in the national press. Members of Congress from both the Left and the Right, commentators of all stripes, and even some Administration officials bemoaned America's inability to predict India's brash entrance into the club of declared nuclear powers.

It was in the end, however, not a failure of the CIA, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, or the seven other federal bureaus that make up the government's intelligence apparatus. They had done what they were told, financed, and trained to do. They merely got beat in a tricky contest. As Indian nuclear researcher G. Balachandran said, "It's not a failure of the CIA. It's a matter of their intelligence being good, our deception being better."

The failure is much broader than getting one-upped in the satellite reconnaissance game. Techno-spying -- done well or poorly -- had little to do with America's being blindsided by other significant events such as Boris Yeltsin's sudden sacking of his entire government a few months back or Saddam Hussein's various fits of pique (from the last round right back to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait -- where we saw everything but knew little).

Moreover, the U.S. is unusually clueless on things it really must know, such as what stands to happen in post-Suharto Indonesia, the security of Russia's nuclear weapons (and scientists), China's intentions about virtually anything outside its borders, Japan's economic and trading strategies, or the state of the North Korean regime.

The inability to make sense of these events reflects the composite failure of the wider quasi- governmental system that complements spy satellites and spooks. Former CIA director R. James Woolsey noted that the India surprise was not only a failure of U.S. intelligence but also a "failure of academics, of think tanks, of the press, of the Congress, [and of the executive branch as a whole."

With so many of our fellow countrymen looking, writing, analyzing, and thinking about the wider world, how do we know so little? It is a quintessentially American set of problems that has caused this dilemma. Indeed, all our powerful sources of national strength- pride, technological innovation, and organizational genius -- have been twisted into weaknesses. Pride has become unenlightened hubris. (Aren't they all like us?)

A national talent for innovation has turned our intelligence gatherers into chairbound technophiles.

The failure is much broader than getting one-upped in the satellite reconnaissance game. An ability to command resources and organize them in heroic efforts has created a crippling bureaucracy that rapaciously feeds on itself, produces volumes of information, and constantly misses the boat.

President Clinton, in Germany at the start of a week-long European trip, put on his best disappointed-father face when denouncing the Indian nuclear tests. "This is a deeply disappointing thing for me, personally.... It is just wrong." With the Bismarckian Helmut Kohl chuckling next to him, the President bemoaned India's decision to "manifest your greatness" with nuclear testing "when everybody else is trying to leave the nuclear age behind." The New fork Times echoed his sentiments, saying that India confused "military might with self-esteem" and opined that "New Delhi is seen as swimming against history's currents."

It seems quite a surprise to the majority of American foreign-policy specialists that the rest of the world may not be winging into the twenty-first century on Windows 98, a trade deal, and an environmental pact. Even more of a surprise that some countries may not seek to guarantee their security through multilateral arms-control negotiations steered by "the haves." You could almost hear the astonished clerks in the State Department. "Didn't India get the memo that there is to be a second American century?" Smarmy State Department spokesperson Jamie Rubin said that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright found it "appalling" that Indian diplomats didn't check with her first. Apparently, Pakistan warned Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, who patronizingly refused to believe that nations crossing the bridge into the twenty-first century might still act out of Thucydidean motives such as fear, honor, and interest.

According to the New Fork Times, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger met with the Indian Foreign Secretary ten days before the tests. "In his conversation, Mr. Berger raised the issue of India's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles only peripherally, stressing instead the need for the world's two largest democracies to build on the common agenda of health, economics, environment, and information technology." Berger and the majority of the foreign-policy elite are multiculuralists writ large. Their contradictory approach to the world intimates that on the one hand we're all different but equal, so no one should force his ideas on anyone else (except that everybody should force ideas on the West because it has been on top so long). But on the other hand we're really all the same deep down inside-enlightened New fork Times Magazine readers all. Surely all other countries will stop their macho national-interest games once they see how good it is to be like America? Hugs all around, everybody! It is this combination of arrogance and ignorance that cripples America's ability to read the cultural currents outside her borders.

Of the $30 billion per year the U.S. spends on intelligence, less than a 10 per cent is spent on "human intelligence." In general, this refers to the art of recruiting interesting talkers, listening to them, and working out what is important in what they said or did not say. The rest of the intelligence budget goes to feed an impressive and expensive array of high-tech sensors, spy satellites, listening devices, and the analysts and computers that digest all that is gathered. The CIA with almost 17,000 employees has only half the budget of the National Reconnaissance Office, which has fewer than 1,000 employees. And only 1 in 20 CIA staffers is in the business of looking on occasion at the people inhabiting the rest of the world. Old-fashioned spying, in the people sense of the word, is not where the action is, budgetarily or strategically.

This is nothing new. Year after year, the reports of the various intelligence oversight committees on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have criticized the overwhelming American reliance on technologically gathered intelligence data -- the limits of which have been demonstrated over and over again. But the technophiles are never deterred. An official Air Force document recently stated that "in the near future we will be able to find, fix, track, and target -- in real time -- anything of consequence that moves or is located on the face of the earth." During the crisis in Central Africa, in which the U.S. intervened militarily all our high-tech devices could not locate more than one million refugees in the jungle highlands, let alone gain insights into the plans or track the movements of the various warring factions. Satellites and sensors are important -- but often wrong, incomplete (monitors picked up only 1 of 5 Indian blasts), or irrelevant. A good conversation with any one of a thousand refugee workers in Rwanda or Zaire could have given a government operative half the information the U.S. needed to address the situation.

The trouble is that in a nation of some 270 million people, which has official organs of its government all over the globe, few professionals can name more than a small handful of truly insightful American observers of the human condition-people who have first-hand experience of a particular area, a well-informed historical appreciation of the political, economic, and cultural rhythms therein, a keen eye for signals, and a feel for momentum leading to events. Among those mentioned frequently is historian/journalist Robert Kaplan, whose vivid picture of places the State Department cannot understand makes him a target for the Foggy Bottom Brahmins' criticism. In places like Africa and the Balkans, he takes the bus and reads the old books; they take the limos and read the newest dispatches. No prizes given for guessing who learns more.

This sort of good human intelligence need not come from within the government itself. After all, there is something to the argument that the bureaucratic machinery of the intelligence community stifles rather than promotes creative intelligence gathering. Conservatives know that, there are twin evils in overly large and centralized bureaucracies. The more obvious evil is that they are inefficient and expensive -- feeding on themselves and providing poor services. The more subtle and corrosive evil is that bureaucracies corrupt the character of the societies they seek to serve by removing certain critical tasks from various units in society and centralizing them in another.

It must be recognized that both these phenomena are as true for the intelligence community as they are for the Department of Education. As retired Navy Admiral David Jeremiah tartly noted in his recent investigation of the India/Pakistan case, the intelligence community's leadership "should have been focused on critical intelligence requirements, even at the expense of the traditional livelihood of Washington of looking at resource allocations and regulatory issues that tend to dominate our structures today." In other words, subject to the same bureaucratic imperatives as the Department of Commerce, intelligence agencies can be just as wasteful. Conservatives must come to realize that patriotism does not mean giving intelligence (and defense) a bye when it comes to reform.

The Kosovo crisis might be resolved, and India's nuclear explosion was only one incident. However, if the U. S. in all its power cannot sense that one of the world's most transparent and penetrable countries is about to change the global nu- clear equation forever, there is a problem. How will we ever learn about the intentions of Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, or Iraq? How can we possibly be prepared for China's rise, a Saudi secession crisis, a refugee crisis somewhere in Africa that dwarfs those of the recent past, or a war over oil in the Caucasus? Recognizing that we must learn the hard way about why people do what they do to each other would be a start. Otherwise, we are headed for a continued (and very expensive) intelligence blackout.