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Intelligence — Making Sense of It All

Are today's intelligence agencies ready for the challenges of the 21st century?

January 29, 2004

Are today's intelligence agencies ready for the challenges of the 21st century?

In the wake of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, much attention has been focused on the failures — and successes — of the U.S. intelligence community. Are the various intelligence services up to the twin challenge of countering global terrorism and dealing with domestic political pressures? Our Read My Lips feature traces opinions on this crucial issue.

What did the September 11 terrorist attacks reveal?

“No intelligence failure since December 1941 has been as great.”
(William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, March 2003)

Why was this failure so astonishing?

“Why — with $30 billion a year spent on intelligence — couldn’t our FBI, CIA and NSA prevent this well-coordinated, two-city attack?”
(William Safire, New York Times columnist, September 2001)

What may have been one reason for that?

“Intelligence is patchily reliable rather than reliable.”
(Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former British diplomat and intelligence chief, July 2003)

Have the authorities abused intelligence?

“”It was not a failure of intelligence — but a manipulation of intelligence to justify going to war.”
(U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), January 2004)

Does that mean, that the public has been deceived?

“Intelligence isn’t just being dumbed down, but is also being manipulated — and it’s continuing.”
(Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times columnist, July 2003)

Why will even the best military never guarantee complete safety?

“The largest, most sophisticated military in the history of the world cannot eliminate the threat of sleeper terrorist cells. That task requires the highest level of intelligence cooperation with our allies.”
(Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont, April 2003)

Yet, why is intelligence crucial for eliminating terrorism?

“The only way you can combat terrorism is through intelligence.”
(Senior U.S. official, August 2003)

How do diplomatic rows impair the cooperation of intelligence services?

“Given how much France’s military and intelligence services help the United States globally, the petty retaliation amounts to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. It should stop.”
(Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, May 2003)

And why is the intelligence gathering function all the more crucial today?

“Pre-emptive strikes. Obviously, it raises the need for solid evidence and quality intelligence.”
(Hans Blix, outgoing UN weapons inspector, June 2003)

What is the danger of desiring absolute certainty?

“The lesson of 9/11 is that if you’re not prepared to act on the basis of murky intelligence, then you’re going to have to act after the fact — and after the fact now means after horrendous things have happened to this country.”
(U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, July 2003)

Is it any easier today to figure out al Qaeda terrorists?

“Al-Qaeda isn’t like a social club. They don’t have a posted membership list.”
(Jameel Yusuf, former head of Karachi’s Citizen-Police Liaison Committee, June 2003)

Did Iraq pose a special challenge for intelligence gathering?

“Iraq was an appallingly difficult intelligence target — as there was no hope of putting in any western agents and there were few leaks from Saddam’s regime.”
(Robin Cook, former British Foreign Secretary, June 2003)

Yet, how was even the sparse intelligence used?

“Intelligence material was treated in a lighthearted way by the United States and Britain.”
(Hans Blix, outgoing UN weapons inspector, June 2003)

Do the experts now admit the difficulties of proving the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

“We were almost all wrong — and I certainly include myself here.”
(Former top U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, January 2004)

What is the view from the allies?

“I don’t apologize for what we did, it was in our view the right thing to have done based on the intelligence that was available.”
(Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, January 2004)

Did the agencies misjudge the aspirations of the Iraqi people?

“Vietnam was a very different war from Iraq — but it too was an invasion. It too suppressed all intelligence warnings that local people might want a change of government — but not one imposed by the West.”
(Simon Jenkins, London Times columnist, April 2003)

Is it always fun and exciting to be part of the intelligence community?

"Being the director of central intelligence is a skunk-at-the-garden-party job.”
(R. James Woolsey, former CIA director, December 1996)

And finally, how does the U.S. President judge the intelligence he receives?

“The intelligence I get is darn good intelligence.”
(U.S. President George W. Bush, July 2003)