The Real Intelligence Failure


Most Americans believe that we are in a terrible dilemma. An increasing number are uncomfortable with the continuing carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan and fearful of the consequences of yet another Middle East war, this time against Iran, but most also believe that our country is threatened by dark forces that seek to destroy us and that extreme measures are justified. Few realize that fear alone is bringing about our transformation into a country driven by constant warfare to the detriment of our constitutional liberties.

Those who believe that a change of course is essential if we are to survive as a nation quite rightly demand the disengagement of the United States from two wars and the avoidance of further conflicts. They understand that the United States has acted unwisely and illegally in its interference in the affairs of others and also that the presence of American military forces all over the world has not made us safer and has in fact served as a catalyst for escalating violence. But those who see the state of the world with such clarity must first convince a majority of their fellow citizens that disengagement is not another word for national suicide. In short, the American people must come to understand that their safety is best assured when our government does not go around the world looking for dragons to slay. A key element in being able to reassure the American people could be the development of a positive and proactive intelligence program that speaks the truth and, inter alia, could actually help avoid conflicts and demonstrate that every citizen benefits when the United States is at peace and a friend to all nations.

America’s fundamental post 9/11 problem is that the resort to brute force is an easy option for a nation that is powerful but that does not necessarily seek to deal with the international subtleties. That go-it-alone aggressiveness was the model for the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama”s foreign policy continues unrestrained military action even as it preaches the use of softer forms of power, witness the continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the increase in armed interventions in places like Pakistan and Somalia.

Part of the reason for this disconnect is that United States intelligence agencies, most notably the CIA, have failed to appreciate that both the Cold War and the so-called Global War on Terror were fought in error against enemies that were deliberately distorted and magnified to create fear. In today’s complicated multipolar world, the CIA and its sister organizations could well be the essential elements in the creation and management of a new security environment, where good information and analysis can be used to shape policies that are cooperative rather than confrontational. But the CIA remains stuck in a post-9/11 mindset, with the Mandarins at Langley seemingly oblivious to the fact that there even exists a new security environment that they should be thinking about. Intelligence should stop looking for dragons and should instead be the key to explaining the world in a way that precludes involvement in situations that are not vital interests and are not subject to any resolution short of war. Intelligence is information and information is politically neutral but when properly applied it can just as easily be a tool for avoiding confrontation as for instigating it.

Understanding the world and “speaking truth to power” are the principal roles of intelligence agencies when they are doing their job properly, but there is always a potential political spin to every story. Recent government warnings that al-Qaeda continues to be serious threat are one good example, trotted out as they are at intervals to raise the fear level in spite of mounting evidence that Usama bin Laden is actually dead. In true “the glass is half full or half empty” fashion, the story based on exactly the same evidence could as easily be that al-Qaeda is, in fact, seriously weakened and would have difficulty in mounting a terror operation anywhere. General Stanley McChrystal and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair have admitted that al-Qaeda is no factor in the current fighting in Central Asia, but the first narrative stressing the potential threat has been embraced by the government because it allows the status quo to continue. The latter narrative about a dysfunctional and expiring al-Qaeda has been essentially suppressed because it would lead to questions about why the United States continues to be in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To cite an example of an objective and depoliticized intelligence report producing a good result, one only has to look at the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which set the record straight on Tehran”s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program. The report effectively put on hold plans to go to war with Tehran being prepared by the Bush Administration but because it derailed a policy the government decided never again to make public the conclusions of an NIE. Worse still, there have been recent calls in Congress to re-do the NIE report, with the obvious intention of coming to a different conclusion, i.e. that Iran is a threat. There is every indication that the intelligence community will dig in its heels and refused to change the conclusion, but if it surrenders to the pressure, it would be a reversion to the type of politically influenced intelligence that enabled the war with Iraq.

Part of the problem in redirecting CIA is cultural and bureaucratic in nature. The Agency is a business that needs to justify its excessive manpower and bloated budget through a product that pleases both Congress and the White House. It also works for the president and is therefore responsive to requests that are essentially political in nature. Put the two together and the Agency will most often dance to the tune being played by its masters. That orientation can change, but only if the White House accepts that it will frequently hear views that it will regard as unacceptable if the CIA is doing what it should be doing. Intelligence circles have long noted that there has been a stream of reporting out of Iraq and Afghanistan indicating that the United States cannot and will not succeed in either theater, which should lead to the conclusion that it is time to go home. Instead, the tendency has been to shoot the messenger. In 2004-2005 several CIA Chiefs of Station in Iraq were fired because they were not “on message” with the Bush Administration. How much better off would the United States be today if the Bushies had instead paid attention to the reporting, admitted that it had been wrong, and abandoned its nation building program?

Disengagement from the status quo with its focus on bloated and ineffective intelligence agencies trying to support bankrupt and unsustainable policies is only possible if there is a return to objectivity and candor, but there is no sign that President Obama desires that any more than did his predecessor. For that to happen, policy makers must insist that US intelligence become less reactive and politicized. CIA in particular must rethink what it does and how it does it and not seek to demonize lists of “axis of evil” enemies. Good intelligence can help explain the world and both identify and neutralize the real threats. It can be used to convince the American people that they are more secure and more free when the United States ceases to be a hegemon engaged all over the world and feared by everyone.

Philip M. Giraldi, Ph.D. is the Francis Walsingham Fellow at The American Conservative Defense Alliance ( and a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer. on 11/4/2009
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Philip Giraldi

Phil Giraldi is a former CIA Case Officer and Army Intelligence Officer who spent twenty years overseas in Europe and the Middle East working terrorism cases. He holds a BA with honors from the University of Chicago and an MA and PhD in Modern History from the University of London. In addition to TAC, where he has been a contributing editor for nine years, he writes regularly for

He is currently Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest and resides with his wife of 32 years in Virginia horse country close to his daughters and grandchildren.

He has begun talking far too much to his English bulldog Dudley of late, thinks of himself as a gourmet cook, and will not drink Chardonnay under any circumstances. He does not tweet, and avoids all social media.