Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Intelligence Failure? (II)

In this piece from NRO Herbert E. Meyer makes a good point about intelligence.

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.

To him it follows that the key failure of the pre-911 CIA and FBI 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. "

While Meyer may have a point, he overlooks one key thing: In the government there are many people who think they have the insight to see the obvious and they disagree. How, then, is a President to choose among them?

It is obvious now that al Qaeda was the greatest immediate threat to US citizens in 2001. But was the evidence that strong in 1998? After all, before the second attack on the WTC, right-wing extremists had killed more Americans than bin Laden. Moreover, we had captured nearly all of the key figures in the first WTC bombing, good police work had foiled attacks on LAX, Seattle, and the trans-Pacific airliners. How stupid was it to think that the FBI and other agencies had a handle on the threat at home?

Is a president really supposed to believe each person who presents a worst-case scenario? Doesn't that lead almost inevitably to countless adventures abroad and a police state at home.?

Dean Acheson wrote in his memoirs that what presidents "needed was communicable wisdom, not mere conclusions, however soundly based in experience or intuition." That means that the insight must be backed up with facts and logic. Meyer admits this, but he thinks that getting the question formed correctly must come first and that framing the right question is critical to intelligence collection and analysis. Unfortunately, such a course can limit the kind of aggressive action Meyer approves of. As we have seen in Iraq, political support for such actions will erode when the voters suspect that the intelligence books were cooked to justify a pre-conceived course of action.

Easterbrook's "Alternative History" shows the problem with"insight" that is too good and is acted upon too quickly. If we citizens don't recognize the threat, we will punish the "over-reaction."

As a conservative, I am appalled at the way some Democrats have attacked Bush on the Iraq War and the intelligence failures. At the same time, i think that Clinton-Reno overstated the threat from the violent, extreme-right. But, for all i know, Clinton could have prevented 10 more OKC-type atrocities by breaking up neo-nazi and other groups. None of us can know how serious a contained threat really was. To judge any intelligence agency only on the threats it did not contain is worse than unfair; it is childish.

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