Essays by Herb Meyer
The Wall Street Journal — June 14, 2004
The most dangerous spot in Washington is the intersection of politics and intelligence; stand there long enough and -- as George Tenet recently discovered -- you get run over. No one understood this better than one of Mr. Tenet's more illustrious predecessors, William J. Casey -- the brilliant, street-smart OSS veteran and Wall Street lawyer who managed President Reagan's 1980 campaign and then served as director of Central Intelligence. Indeed, one of the special pleasures of working for Bill Casey was sitting with him at day's end while he wound down by musing aloud about how politics and intelligence came together. Among the priceless insights: "When you get elected president, you must move fast to put your own people at Justice and CIA. In different ways, these are the two bureaucracies that can destroy a presidency."
President Bush ignored half that advice. He moved fast to put his own people at Justice -- and at the Pentagon, the State Department, even the Agriculture Department. But he kept Mr. Tenet, a Clinton appointee, at CIA and, worse, took no steps to bring in the kinds of outside talent the agency sorely needed to shake things up in its collection division and sharpen the agency's analytic skills. The result has been a cascading series of intelligence failures and screw-ups that have hurt the country -- and damaged the president's personal credibility to the point where it may cost him re-election.
* * *
The 9/11 attacks were themselves the worst intelligence failure in our country's history, caused largely by the CIA's inability to penetrate al Qaeda, to track the 9/11 terrorists themselves as they traveled the world to plan their deadly mission, and then to share whatever information the agency did collect with the FBI. And whatever may turn out to be the truth about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- whether they were destroyed or moved to Syria or Iran before Saddam Hussein's overthrow -- it's obvious that the CIA failed to provide an accurate assessment of what U.S. forces would find in Iraq when they got there.
In addition, the CIA failed to project Saddam Hussein's war strategy -- to melt into the population and then launch guerilla attacks rather than fight our army head-on in the field -- failed to project the sorry state of Iraq's physical infrastructure including its oil pipelines and electric grids, and failed to accurately project the edgy, not-very-grateful attitude of Iraq's political factions. And whatever may be going on with Ahmed Chalabi, the CIA's clumsy efforts to discredit him through leaks to selected news organizations have made the president himself collateral damage.
One other intelligence failure, which has received less attention than these but which may turn out to be the most serious of all, has been the CIA's failure to draw an accurate picture of the prewar links between Iraq and al Qaeda. While the CIA claims that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden had no more than an arms-length relationship, journalists including Stephen Hayes and Laurie Mylroie have uncovered an overwhelming volume of information which, when you pull the pieces together into a pattern, make a persuasive case that Iraq and al Qaeda worked closely together in the months and years leading up to 9/11. And as the information confirming this linkage has piled up, the CIA has obstinately refused to reconsider its judgment, preferring instead to trash the journalists who have so obviously run circles around its own collectors and analysts.
(This is an eerie replay of what happened in the early 1980s, when the CIA bureaucracy insisted -- in the face of all experience and common sense -- that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the attempted assassination of the Pope. When journalists including Claire Sterling and Paul Henze uncovered powerful evidence of Soviet involvement, the CIA tried to discredit the journalists rather than consider their information and its horrifying implication. It took a special ad hoc team of agency officials pulled together by Casey over the "intelligence professionals" objections -- a word that doesn't begin to describe the Operations Directorate's behavior; this was the nastiest, most vicious episode of CIA infighting I've ever seen -- to finally figure out what really happened.)
Mr. Tenet's departure -- whether he jumped or was pushed doesn't really matter -- gives the president a chance to correct his original mistake and get the CIA going in the right direction. After all, the CIA is to our government what radar is to the crew of a 747; it's the instrument they rely upon to spot trouble up ahead, before it's visible, and in plenty of time to deal with it. In other words, it's the CIA's job to project the future, clearly enough and soon enough, so that the president can change the future before it happens.
Push beyond all the bureaucratic gobbledygook, and you see that our country's intelligence service does just two things with its $40 billion budget: it collects information, then pulls that information together into patterns, which take the form of National Intelligence Estimates that are delivered to the president, his key advisers and members of Congress. More than 90% of the intelligence budget and personnel goes toward "collecting dots" and funneling them to the seventh floor of CIA headquarters -- keep in mind that the "C" in CIA stands for "central" -- where the top-echelon "dot connectors" work to see what patterns they form. When we have an intelligence failure, by definition it's because one of two things went wrong: We didn't collect the right dots, or we didn't connect them properly.
During the Clinton administration, both parts of the CIA were allowed to degrade. George Tenet has worked hard to improve the agency's collection capabilities; if our espionage service is in good shape a decade from now (it takes a long time to rebuild a spy service) he will deserve much of the credit.
The big failure -- and the real source of all the failures in these last few years -- lies in the agency's abysmal analytic skills. What's happened, very simply, is this: The dot-connectors got shoved aside and were replaced by bureaucrats, such as Mr. Tenet himself and his key deputies. Think for a moment of our country's great scientific research labs, such as the Salk Institute, Cold Springs Harbor Labs or Rockefeller University. Each one, and others like them, are headed by world-class scientists with proven track records of success (often with Nobel prizes to prove it) and who have now reached that stage in their careers when they can put aside their own research to manage teams of scientists who will make the next breakthroughs. Because these leaders have themselves succeeded so brilliantly, they have superb judgment on whom to hire, which projects to back and which to set aside -- that priceless, unquantifiable gut feel for where the big payoff lies -- what equipment to purchase and how to structure the organization itself.
It's the same with intelligence. You cannot have a first-class intelligence service unless you put at the very top of it men and women with proven records of success at spotting patterns, at seeing where the world is going and what the next threats are likely to be long before they become visible. Intelligence isn't org charts; it's people. Get the right ones in place and all the organizational problems somehow get resolved. Indeed, the one quality all our great CIA directors have shared -- Allen Dulles, John McCone, Bill Casey among others -- is this remarkable talent for spotting patterns and connecting the dots.
* * *
In light of today's terrorist threat, President Bush might want to take a page from President Reagan's playbook. When he named Bill Casey to head the CIA, his orders were to get control of the agency -- fast -- and to turn it from a lumbering bureaucracy whose judgments and predictions often were flawed into a razor-sharp operation that was playing offense.
Knowing how long that would take -- and knowing that the country needed a first-rate intelligence service right now -- Casey did something that to this day few people understand. While striving mightily to improve the CIA's collection and analytic divisions, he created virtually overnight within the CIA an OSS -- a small cadre of operators and analysts brought in from the outside, who knew their way around the world and could make things happen, quickly and without a fuss, and who could pull together information into patterns that eluded the CIA's career analysts.
While the CIA bureaucracy stumbled along as best it could -- and, in all fairness, some of the agency's people were first-rate -- this "OSS within the CIA" developed ideas for tripping up the Soviet Union no one else had thought of. And it produced analyses, for instance about the Soviet Union's looming economic implosion, that overrode the CIA's "official" (and dead wrong) judgment that the Soviet economy was growing. All this combined to give President Reagan the edge he needed.
The good news is that this country is filled with first-class pattern-spotters with the talent and experience to do this again. You can find them in politics, in business, on Wall Street, at leading think tanks, in the high-tech corridors of Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128, and in academia. Right now the president has an opportunity to reach out and find the kind of CIA director with the brains and horsepower to make the agency razor-sharp and playing offense. And he needs to move fast.
We are at war, and our radar is busted. Indeed, it's fair to say we are at war because our radar is busted. For the country's sake, we cannot continue to fly blind.