Essays by Herb Meyer
Connecting the Dots
National Review Online — April 8, 2004
As the 9/11 Commission's hearings play out on television, and as the new presidential commission to investigate intelligence failures relating to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction gets going, the coming weeks are sure to bring more revelations about what went wrong in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks and in the subsequent run-up to our war with Iraq. Good: We need to understand what went wrong with our intelligence on the 9/11 attacks and Iraq's WMD, and if these commissions can find some answers, we will owe them our gratitude.
But enough information has already surfaced to make clear that behind the CIA's failures surrounding 9/11 and Iraq's WMD lies an intelligence failure about the war on terrorism that runs even deeper — and is of an order of magnitude that neither commission may consider within its charter to investigate. To understand this deeper failure, you need to understand something about intelligence itself that, to my knowledge, no one has ever disclosed before. For several years, during the Reagan administration, I had access to many of our intelligence services' most closely held secrets. And what I learned is this: The most vital, most actionable pieces of intelligence aren't "secret" at all. They are visible to anyone with a reasonable grasp of politics and economics — and, above all, anyone with a willingness to see the obvious and then articulate it clearly enough, and forcefully enough, so that policymakers cannot possibly ignore it.
Before turning to the CIA's failure in the war on terrorism, let me explain this point by outlining the CIA's deep failure in the Cold War. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the CIA produced a stream of intelligence assessments whose key judgment was that the Soviet economy was growing at an annual rate of more than 3 percent. The implication of this steady growth was that the Soviet Union had the economic wherewithal to continue fighting the Cold War for as long as anyone could foresee. There was just one problem with the agency's key judgment: It couldn't possibly be right. If you understood how an economy works — or if you just put on a pair of comfortable shoes and walked the streets of Moscow, or Leningrad, or Minsk with your eyes open — it was obvious that the Soviet economy wasn't growing at 3 percent. It wasn't growing at all: It was starting to implode.
The Value of Insight
This wasn't a secret, but rather something much more valuable in the intelligence business: It was an insight. And if true, the implication of this insight was extraordinary: it meant the Soviet Union could not continue to wage the Cold War; that it needed to win quickly, before its economy collapsed, which meant in turn that the Soviet Union was likely to become even more aggressive in the years ahead precisely because it was starting to collapse. Armed with this insight — which was developed by a group of "outsiders" appointed to key CIA jobs by President Reagan's remarkable director of central intelligence, William J. Casey — we ordered our clandestine service, and our analysts, to shift their focus from Soviet strengths to Soviet weaknesses; in other words, to see if they could uncover "secret" intelligence either to support the insight or prove it false.
What flowed in was a stunning torrent of reports, intercepts, and photographs — about factories shutting down for lack of raw materials, about workers rioting to protest the lack of meat and soap, about Moscow planners frantically shifting allocations of steel from tanks to locomotives, the text of brutal memos from the Politburo putting more and more pressure on the various bureaucracies to find new ways of generating hard currency — all of which showed conclusively not only that the Soviet economy was imploding, but that Soviet leaders knew it. Indeed, the one "secret" that Soviet leaders were most determined to keep us from learning — the one piece of intelligence whose discovery would be for them an utter catastrophe — is that they were sitting atop an imploding economy.
They were right. Armed with the intelligence that the Soviet economy was in deep trouble, President Reagan set a course to force that economy off a cliff. We launched an arms buildup the Soviets couldn't possibly match, including SDI. We got rough with our so-called allies in the Mideast and forced down the price of oil, not merely to boost our own economy, but to cripple the Soviet economy by cutting their hard-currency earnings from oil exports. And when they scrambled to build a natural-gas pipeline into Western Europe to generate the hard currency that oil exports weren't providing, we played diplomatic hardball with our European allies and got that project stopped. There was more to it, of course — including CIA operations that even now must remain secret — but the point here is that President Reagan found a way to use this intelligence to end the Cold War with a victory for the free world.
Now let's fast-forward into the 1990s. The World Trade Center was nearly blown up in 1993. American soldiers were killed in Saudi Arabia when truck bombs took out the Khobar Towers barracks in 1996. In Iran the mullahs were providing more and more support to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. In Iraq Saddam Hussein tried to kill President George H.W. Bush and established at least a working relationship with al Qaeda. The Taliban took power in Afghanistan, and gave al Qaeda a secure base of operations. Al Qaeda itself began to operate beyond the Mideast, and in 1998 hit our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In 2000, al Qaeda wrecked the Navy's most advanced destroyer, the USS Cole. And through all this, literally month after month, Osama bin Laden issued one statement after another calling for the destruction of Western Civilization itself.
We Were at War
Put all this together (and, in my mind, we need to take a hard look at the Oklahoma City bombing and the explosion that brought down TWA flight 800), and the not-so-secret insight hits you right between the eyes: War has been declared on the United States. It has been declared by al Qaeda, which has the support of other terrorist groups and also of rogue states including Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Attacks to date make clear that this anti-U.S. coalition of groups and states has the capacity to plan and carry out sophisticated attacks on high-value targets, and has a global reach. Most worrisome, our enemies' objective is neither political nor territorial in the traditional sense. Rather, their objective is our utter physical destruction. The implication is that attacks on U.S. targets, both overseas and in the U.S. itself, inevitably will increase both in frequency and magnitude. Of course analysts will have honest differences of opinion over which terrorist group or country carried out which attack. (Hint to all you terrorism analysts: Laurie Mylroie is right; Laurie is always right.) But push beyond these differences and you would have to be blind not to see that our country was at war, and had been for several years at least.
It was the intelligence community's responsibility — probably by the mid-1990s, but surely by the late 1990s — to reach this key judgment and grasp its horrifying implications. And the community's leader, the director of central intelligence, should have made sure that both the judgment and its implications were delivered and absorbed. After all, intelligence isn't like journalism; you don't just write your piece, send it off for publication, and then keep your fingers crossed hoping someone will notice your brilliant insight. In the intelligence business, you send your judgment and explain its implications to the policymakers, then wait a reasonable amount of time — about five minutes — before jumping in a car, heading for the White House, or the State Department, or the Pentagon, pushing your way past all the secretaries and confronting your good friends and colleagues head-on.
In the intelligence business you need to market your product. You need to confront the policymakers, force them to pay attention, make them "get it." And if charm and courtesy don't work — and they rarely do, because policymakers are busy, distracted by other problems, and they, like all human beings, hate to be confronted with bad news — you need to shove the intelligence down their throats. All this is part of the job — which is why intelligence officials who are described as "well liked by policymakers" are worthless. And if nothing you say or do gets the policymakers to pay attention, you get back in your car, drive to Capitol Hill, and talk privately with some of the more serious members of Congress. And if you still can't get anyone to face the intelligence, you resign and slam the door so hard on your way out that the whole country hears it and asks why.
But none of this happened. The CIA and the other parts of our intelligence community didn't "get it." They didn't connect the dots. They didn't understand that, by the mid-1990s, the old way of declaring war had ended — think of Neville Chamberlain's mournful BBC broadcast in September 1939, telling the British that "...as Herr Hitler has not responded to our ultimatum, a state of war therefore exists between our two countries" — and that from now on wars just start without the traditional formalities.
The Failure of Failures
This is the deep intelligence failure of the war on terrorism. It was a failure of insight, and it was from this failure that all the others flowed. Had our intelligence community made clear back in the 1990s that the country was at war, and under attack, the post-9/11 national focus on terrorism and on radical Islam would have started years before. The questions of how best to confront our enemies, and perhaps of whether to form a Department of Homeland Security, might have become issues in the 2000 presidential elections. The intelligence-sharing between the CIA and FBI that is only now beginning might have been working smoothly long before those 19 9/11 hijackers ever entered the U.S.
It's possible, of course, that none of this would have sufficed to stop the 9/11 attacks. And it's possible that, in the late 1990s, we Americans were having so much fun — a booming dot-com economy, a president whose sexual antics kept us amused and revolted, all sorts of neat new electronic toys to play with — that nothing our intelligence community reported could have made us end our holiday from history and get serious in time. But we will never know for sure, because our intelligence community failed to sound the alarm early enough, clearly enough — and loudly enough — to give us a chance.
To their great credit, both Republican and Democratic members of the two intelligence commissions have made clear that they are more interested in making needed changes to help prevent future failures than in assigning blame for past failures. This means they will need to push beyond "secret" intelligence of intercepts and satellite photos — and beyond the headline-grabbing disputes over who said what to whom, or whose recollection of some off-hand comment by the president is more accurate — and reach to the core of how intelligence works.
The real value of intelligence isn't merely to provide a last-minute warning so you can dodge a bullet or a bomb — or a hijacked 757. Rather, it is to see the future clearly enough, and early enough, so that you can change the future before it happens. To do this you need insight even more than you need secrets; this means that, to prevent the next failure, we will need to do more than merely re-organize the intelligence community, or even name a director of national intelligence to oversee the whole alphabet soup of agencies and offices. As I have said before, intelligence isn't org charts: It's people. And this means that unless we put at the upper echelons of the CIA the best analysts and pattern-spotters our country can provide — the kinds of men and women who aren't likely to be career government officials — we won't be ready for whatever the next history-making cataclysm turns out to be.