- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

This summer, Washington’s Irony Theater is putting on one of its livelier performances. While one posse thunders after President Bush on the charge that he failed to prevent September 11 because he paid too little attention to tenuous intelligence about Osama bin Laden, another pursues him claiming that he is guilty of going to war in Iraq because he paid too much attention to tenuous intelligence about Saddam Hussein.

At the core of all this is intelligence — the mysterious and misunderstood product of the CIA, DIA, NSA and other lesser known agencies and bureaus.

When American forces in Iraq did not immediately find weapons of mass destruction and evidence of an Iraqi-al Qaeda alliance, critics accused Mr. Bush of either lying or of exaggerating intelligence to justify going to war against Saddam Hussein.

The first charge launched off the deck — the canard that Mr. Bush downright lied about WMDs — soon crashed under its own weight. For, if the president lied about Saddam’s WMDs, so did French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

These men agreed with Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Saddam possessed WMDs — what they disagreed with was what to do about it.

We are in the run-up to the 2004 elections, and it should surprise no one that Mr. Bush is flying through heavy turbulence. If we disperse the windy political rhetoric that comes inevitably with strategic national issues like the flatulence that accompanies a big meal, we are left with the solid fact that September 11 drastically changed Americans’ perception of their security in the post-Cold War world. In turn, that change causes people responsible for national security to treat intelligence differently than they did before September 11.

Until we eliminate the scourge of terrorism, every president’s worst nightmare will be another attack on the U.S. homeland even more devastating than September 11. Every president will realize that to prevent this, he or she must read the intentions of well-funded, technically proficient enemies who are eager to die while killing as many American men, women and children as possible.

And every president, regardless of party, will learn, as Mr. Bush presumably has learned, that intelligence doesn’t arrive at the White House situation room neatly wrapped with a doubt-free certification signed by the CIA.

American intelligence is among the best in the world. Yet it has inherent weaknesses in the war against terrorism. For half a century, U.S. intelligence contributed to our security by satellites and listening stations that monitored our adversaries’ arsenals.

Impressive as it is, our ability to count airplanes, tanks, submarines and ballistic missiles tells us nothing about terrorist intentions or about their weapons — fertilizer made into bombs and hijacked civilian airliners converted into cruise missiles.

We have yet to appreciate that the intelligence we can gather against terrorists is bound to be more ambiguous and more susceptible to deception than the assessments that undergirded our defense policies during the Cold War.

Counterterrorism intelligence comes largely from talking to people and from listening to people talk to other people. Some of these people are reliable, others are not.

Some are accurate, others are not, and still others are deceptive.

This intelligence comes in dribs and drabs, jigsaw puzzle pieces turning up one or two at a time. Some of those pieces are solid, some are not. Some of those pieces fit with other pieces, some do not. Because of this, every U.S. president will wake in the middle of the night with the gnawing realization that if he or she waits until all the pieces are assembled, until the intelligence picture is complete beyond argument, it might be too late to avoid a catastrophe many times worse than September 11.

Every U.S. president will learn, as Mr. Bush has already learned, that editorial critics and country-club generals will pick at the inevitable differences between the intelligence fragments that went into the president’s judgment to go to war and the more complete knowledge that is inevitably gained after the shooting stops.

Drop back for a moment and think about how September 11 changed our perceptions of what constitutes adequate intelligence. Imagine that, based on the bits of intelligence that Mr. Bush is accused of ignoring, he had ordered a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan on September 9 or 10.

In this imaginary scenario, Mr. Bush stymies al Qaeda’s attacks on the Pentagon and Trade Center.

In the aftermath of our invasion, we would have found no “smoking gun” in the Afghan camps that would prove al Qaeda was going to strike the U.S. homeland.

Certainly, we would have found little definitive evidence pointing to a suicide strike on New York and Washington.

And not having to contend with September 11’s violent deaths of thousands of Americans, critics would have had unlimited running room to argue that the intelligence we had didn’t warrant invading a sovereign nation; that al Qaeda, while a nasty bunch, had no means by which to attack the United States. Moreover, critics would have scorned as fantasy any suggestion that, armed with only box cutters, al Qaeda operatives could have taken down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.

As a matter of fact, an indicator of this tendency to dismiss the terrorist menace showed up just two months before September 11 in, of all places, the New York Times, which featured an article headlined “The Declining Terrorist Threat.” The author, a former State Department “terrorism expert” wrote that:

“Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.”

The Times article went on to say that “none of these beliefs are based in fact,” and that the terrorism threat was being exaggerated by “military and intelligence agencies … desperate to find an enemy to justify budget growth.”

Confusion, charge and countercharge naturally accompany upheavals in a democracy. In our own quarrelsome way, the present debate is how we Americans are trying to figure out what has happened to our country and how we can work our way through a future we can only dimly see.

As Americans, we have always been eager to learn new lessons. One lesson that appears to be emerging from our brawling debate on intelligence is that global terrorism has us in its sights, and that we will have to act early to prevent death and destruction on a massive scale. And the corollary to this lesson is that we are going to have to make many more life-or-death decisions with fewer pieces of the jigsaw puzzle on the table before us.

Robert Andrews, a former Green Beret and Central Intelligence Agency officer, is a Washington novelist. He was a principal deputy assistant secretary of defense and a policy adviser to the defense secretary on special operations and low-intensity conflict from July 2001 to July 2002.

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