Americans are justifiably concerned that our national leaders do not seem to anticipate looming threats. They quite correctly ask, "What are we getting for the $80 billion a year we pay to gather intelligence?"
"Don't worry" says the former deputy director of its Counterterrorist Center: it is not the fault of the intelligence community: "They screw things up all by themselves" he states. "On major foreign policy decisions, intelligence is not the decisive factor".
Is the intelligence community really that innocent?
Now retired, this same 28-year CIA veteran had a hand in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. The report was a bombshell: its summary dismissed Iran as a threat to US, effectively taking it out of the mix of national security issues in the 2008 Presidential campaign.
This was apparently accomplished by a sleight of hand. In a footnote, the NIE report clarified that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and that the report was referring only to the warhead design and not the harder part, the enrichment of uranium and the production of nuclear weapons fuel.
In this instance, US policy on Iran was being guided by an intelligence community as an accomplice in dumbing-down our security assessments to make the "Iranian problem go away." The former Secretary of Defense, the late Les Aspin, had a phrase for such work: "They cooked the books."
This was not, however, the first time the intelligence community was complicit in fooling the American people. After the election of 1994, Republicans controlled the US Congress for the first time in half a century. One of the keys to their victory was a call to defend the United States from ballistic missile threats.
But the CIA had a better idea. it sent the Hill a new assessment: There would be no threat to the United States from ballistic missiles for at least the next fifteen years.
The House then narrowly turned down funding for missile defenses.
Two assumptions made in the assessment, however, were not made public at the time: (1) any country building such missiles would have no outside help; and (2) for purposes of the assessment, the "United States" did not include Alaska and Hawaii.
These revisions managed to cook the books exactly as the CIA wanted. The threat was sufficiently over the horizon to require no immediate action on missile defense. And as Hawaii and Alaska were much closer to one of the major threat countries, North Korea, excluding both states from the definition of the "United States" was a convenient way of dismissing the threat that might arise from Pyongyang: missiles able to strike Hawaii, after all, could be of a much shorter range than those capable of striking San Francisco.
So the administration, far from ignoring the intelligence, was perfectly happy to have the "intelligence community" backstop political opposition to what it saw as dangerous missile defense ideas. The bias evident in the 1995 threat assessment was, however, part of a pattern of poor intelligence generated by a host of bad thinking and wrong assumptions. This incompetence became glaringly evident three years later.
On March 19, 1999, in a little-known side-letter to the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the US Senate, the members of the Rumsfeld Commission on "Ballistic Missile Threats to the United States" issued a number of warnings.
Significant missile capabilities were emerging in a large number of hostile states, and far faster than previously assumed, as technology and expertise became increasingly available. Worse, our ability to detect such capability was being increasingly frustrated by our adversaries' sophisticated deception and denial capabilities.
The letter then highlighted an extraordinary insight acquired during the Commission's work, that the US intelligence community viewed ballistic missile acquisition and development by hostile nations as principally a problem of enforcing nonproliferation measures. What the intelligence community failed to do was see WMD and missiles "as instruments of state power" rather than as "contraband traded contrary to international norms."
The U.S. effort therefore became tracing the evidence of the commercial activity and determining the complicity of the seller and its government in the sale of various technologies.
The letter then explained that considerably less attention is given to the motivation of those who seek to acquire such capabilities; the leverage that such a purchase might impart to the buyer in global or regional affairs,; the growth paths for ballistic missile programs; the likelihood that buyers cooperate among themselves, and the effects of deception and denial activities.
After one briefing, the Commission members were apparently told that everything they had heard from the analysts was "mostly incorrect" because the briefers "did not have access to the information" the Commission had received or was about to receive from other "compartments". The briefers, the Commission concluded, knew less than the Commission members they were briefing.
Recently, Russian General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, threatened pre-emptive military strikes against US missile defense sites in Europe.
Russia -- an ally of Iran, with its ballistic missiles, its nuclear weapons program, and its obedient proxy, Syria -- has assisted North Korea and Iran in their nuclear and missile programs.
Is there thus any doubt that Moscow is very much part of terrorism's global coalition?