Underestimating Intelligence

Why it’s not fair to give the CIA a failing grade.

Anyone looking to confirm his or her view that the word “intelligence” does not belong in the name of the nation’s spy agency will be amply rewarded by James Risen’s State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. The book is riding into bookstores on a wave of remarkable pre-publication buzz. With his New York Times colleague Eric Lichtblau, Risen last month broke the story that the Bush administration had authorized the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless surveillance on Americans. That revelation has led Sen. Arlen Specter of the Senate judiciary committee to promise hearings on the matter and prompted some solid Republicans to wonder if the White House hasn’t overreached dangerously in its effort to redefine the powers of the presidency. 

As an appetizer for the rest of the book, the NSA scoop is hard to beat. The version in the book takes up just one of Risen’s nine chapters, which provide a compendium of failure, incompetence, stupidity, and malfeasance on the part of the CIA’s top management and the administration leadership. He tells of a network of spies in Iran inadvertently exposed by a communications screw-up, of intelligence officers punished for reporting bad news from Baghdad, and of a disinformation effort to give Iran flawed nuclear bomb plans that appears to have gone badly awry. In the wake of the U.S. intelligence community’s failure to ascertain that Saddam Hussein no longer had weapons of mass destruction, these tales of an intelligence community that could not think straight and that readily abetted an administration bent on war are bound to ring all too true to many readers. 

And that is the problem. Time and again in his slim book, Risen gives us reason to wonder whether we’re getting the whole story and a fair perspective. As a longtime reporter on the intelligence beat—one of the toughest fields to cover, because of the difficulty of finding willing and honest sources—Risen has shown himself to be the kind of journalist who instinctively believes that the government he is reporting on is dishonest or corrupt, or simply too stupid by half. Every newspaper needs a few reporters who think this way—it’s the journalistic corollary of the “throw the bums out” tradition in American politics. But Risen’s instincts have gotten the better of him in the past, as in his reporting with Jeff Gerth on Wen Ho Lee. In that case, the siren call of a well-placed government source with a dramatic story of espionage and government foot-dragging proved too hard to resist, and the result was a low point in the pre-Jason Blair, pre-Judy Miller history of the Times.

As a National Security Council staffer, I had my own taste of the Risen treatment when he led the charge to show that the U.S. bombing of the al-Shifa chemical plant in Khartoum in August 1998 was a blunder. That strike came less than two weeks after al- Qaida bombed U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The debate continues as to whether the United States hit the right target, and plenty of people remain convinced that the intelligence—remember the notorious soil sample—was too skimpy and the deliberative process behind the strike too sealed off. I know I’m one of the few who is convinced that striking the plant was the right thing to do, but even reporters who thought the bombing was a mistake should have asked why the Clinton administration was so worried about a factory in Khartoum. Had the press examined the question of why the Clinton team was making such a big deal about catastrophic terror in 1998—there was, after all, substantial intelligence showing al-Qaida’s desire to acquire chemical weapons—we might not have been so surprised on 9/11.

In State of War, Risen is again in attack mode, and his adversarial perspective leads him to miss the bigger, and more mixed, picture. The tip-off comes in his prologue, when he writes, “No other institution failed in its mission as completely during the Bush years as did the CIA.” That judgment is too sweeping and unfair. The CIA deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the campaign in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban, and blame for the failure to follow through in Afghanistan belongs more to the Pentagon than to Langley. To the extent that al-Qaida has seen its core capabilities degraded since 9/11 by the capture or killing of major operatives, we have the CIA to thank.

The CIA also appears not to have wavered in its judgment that al-Qaida and the Iraqis were not collaborating, though that did not stop senior officials—including the vice president—from declaring that all these evil Muslims were colluding. And let’s not forget that the CIA predicted correctly the consequences of war in Iraq: The American incursion would prove to be the radical Islamist terrorists’ dream recruitment tool—a “poster child” for the global jihad was the shorthand that intelligence community analysts used. They sought in vain to get senior policymakers to consider the likelihood that invading Iraq would confirm for Muslims around the world that Osama Bin Laden had the United States pegged right—that we do seek to dominate them. None of these intelligence “successes” gets serious attention in State of War, an inexplicable omission in a book on the CIA.

The effect is to cast doubt on Risen’s accounts of intelligence screw-ups, even those that sound persuasive and deserve to be taken seriously. Some of his exposés do indeed ring true—and merit more investigation. One story in particular seems genuinely important and deeply unsettling. In “The Hunt for WMD,” he reports on an ingenious CIA program, launched in 2002, in which the expatriate relatives of 30 Iraqi weapons scientists were persuaded to visit their family members in Iraq to find out what they could about Saddam Hussein’s chemical, biological, and nuclear programs. The brainchild of Charlie Allen, one of the CIA’s few living legends and a genius at finding unusual solutions to problems of intelligence collection, the operation produced startling results: Without exception, the scientists told their relatives that Baghdad had abandoned the weapons programs years earlier, and this news was reported back the CIA. But according to Risen, who published a version of this story in the Times in July 2004, these findings were never circulated to administration policymakers: “Sources say that the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, which was supposed to be in charge of all of the agency’s clandestine intelligence operations, was jealous of Allen’s incursions into its operational turf and shut down his program and denigrated its results.” One would like to know more. But even as told, this story rips a large hole in the position, staunchly maintained by the administration and the CIA, that the Iraqi WMD intelligence failure was an honest and understandable mistake.

Other chapters provide accounts that feel less solid and make one wonder if the author isn’t indulging his antipathy for the agency and the entire government. A chapter titled “Casus Belli” relates a discussion at a CIA station-chiefs meeting in 2002 about blowing up a Persian Gulf ferry and pinning blame on Iraq to give the United States a pretext for war. Risen hedges when describing this event, suggesting that the conversation may have been idle chatter; but he goes ahead and includes it anyway, endowing the story with a sinister significance it is not clear it had. Risen also has a habit of relying on the most outspoken, but not necessarily the most credible, critics. In a chapter on the debate within the administration over whether to promote a drug-eradication program in Afghanistan, Risen presents the issue through the eyes of one overly zealous State Department official who refused to recognize that an aggressive anti-narcotics campaign in a country where more than half of the economy is based on drugs could undermine the stability of a newly installed and fragile government.

The truth is that the institution that has most notably failed in its mission during the Bush administration is not the CIA but the Pentagon, specifically, the civilian Office of the Secretary of Defense. Nothing the intelligence community has done compares with the massively botched occupation of Iraq. At times Risen seems to acknowledge this, and he writes well about how the secretary of defense and the vice president have monopolized administration decision-making outside of the statutory National Security Council process. In fact, an accurate recent history of the CIA would focus on what a peripheral role the institution has played in policymaking in the Bush administration. The decision to go to war in Iraq, after all, was made long before the famous National Intelligence Estimate was requested by Congress in September 2002, and the White House seems to have cared about the intelligence on WMD only insofar as it would help argue the case for war. Risen’s title suggests that he will spill the goods on the internal battles sparked by the administration’s highhanded treatment of an institution that found itself marginalized, yet also stuck with much of the blame for policy failures. But this is territory he leaves largely unexplored.

Nor will you find Risen considering the consequences for the CIA of the last five years of bureaucratic and political strife. That is too bad. There has been an exodus of experienced and capable officers, both on the analytic side and in the clandestine service. Morale in the intelligence community is, in the words of one insider I spoke with recently, “lower than the whale shit at the bottom of the ocean.” The reorganization of the intelligence community, which has left unresolved such key issues as who has what roles and missions, so far seems to be exacerbating the problems. When no one is sure which side is up or who is doing what, the potential for distraction and real underperformance—for missing some vital and dangerous development—is growing. John Brennan, the former interim director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently wrote in the Washington Post that the turmoil in the intelligence community “puts our security at risk.” We need our reporters to explore this, but State of War, filled though it is with scoop, doesn’t give us the story.