It was an embarrassing week for the American intelligence community. At the outset, the intelligence services performed what looked like a head-snapping 180-degree turn on the all-important question of whether Iran is building a nuclear weapon. At the end of the week the CIA confessed that it had destroyed two tapes showing the torture (er, aggressive interrogation methods) used on some captured "high-value" Al Qaeda targets.
Any casual newspaper reader would think that our intelligence services are either hopelessly jinxed or inept. Indeed, this fall Tim Weiner, who covered the CIA for the New York Times, won a National Book Award for "Legacy of Ashes," his damning history of the CIA, which shows that America's spies having been missing the boat for decades. I gave a favorable review to that book in the New York Times, but some of the feedback I got from people who know more about intelligence than I do have made me reconsider blanket denunciations of the CIA. My critics ranged from former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to a Yale Law School student named Elbridge Colby, who served for a time as special assistant to the Director of National Intelligence and who is the grandson of former CIA director William Colby. Based on their comments I have tried to think through a less knee-jerk approach to understanding our intelligence failures.
The best place to start is with a basic truth. Predicting the future is very hard to do. Yes, it's true that the CIA failed to predict the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, or the Soviets' getting the bomb in 1949, or Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But rival national intelligence services have not done much better. Even Israel's legendary Mossad missed the outbreak of the Arab-Isreali war in 1973. A veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service once looked back on a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century and remarked, "In all that time I was wrong only twice: World War One and World War Two." It is particularly difficult to penetrate dictatorships that live by secrets and kill spies at the slightest hint of betrayal. The CIA couldn't effectively penetrate Stalinist Russia, and it's no surprise that the agency cannot truly crack Islamist Iran.
The CIA is caught in a difficult contradiction. It is criticized for being both ineffective and malign. The unfortunate truth is that it may take unsavory methods to gather intelligence. We don't want the CIA to be like the Egyptians, who gather information by torture. (And we don't want the CIA to "render" suspects to the Egyptians to let them do the dirty work.) It may be true that torture doesn't work well to get at the truth (on the theory that people will lie to stop the pain). But most intelligence experts will uneasily acknowledge that aggressive interrogation measures like sleeplessness—so-called "torture lite"—can work, especially when time is of the essence. The public may have to tolerate or turn a blind eye to more of the dark side if we want more actionable intelligence. I acknowledge this with reluctance and only as a last resort. Democracies are rightfully wary about empowering secret police to have their way.
In any case, policymakers need to be realistic about what intelligence can achieve. There is a tendency for presidents to place too much hope in the ability of their spies. Presidents read novels and watch movies too (JFK was a James Bond fan), and they can have naive or romantic notions about the spy trade. A better faith would be in patient diplomacy and deterrence by the threat of force. Of course, deterrence may not work against stateless jihadists. If the terrorists really do get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and use one on the United States, we may have to rethink what we are willing to accept in the way of limiting civil liberties and unleashing internal security. It is a grim to contemplate, but where terror is involved, we are relatively defenseless. Intelligence really is important, even if we're not very good at it.