Expert analysts steeped in history and human nature are desperately needed at the Central Intelligence Agency. The prevailing preoccupation with greater clandestine intelligence collection through informants and spies is misplaced. Open-source intelligence properly evaluated is characteristically sufficient to provide the president with enlightened national security or foreign policy advice. While both human intelligence and superb analysts are needed, the latter are more needed than the former.
As the curtain lifted on 1978, President Jimmy Carter paid rhapsodic homage to Iran and Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi: “Iran, whose destiny is so remarkably well guided by the shah, is an island of stability in one of the most troubled regions of the world. That is a great tribute to you, Your majesty, and to the great task that you are accomplishing in Iran, and to the respect, admiration, and love that your people bear you.” By January 1979, however, the Iranian Revolution had driven the shah into exile amidst a crescendo of popular execrations. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini soon transformed Iran into a benighted, mullah-dominated terrorist state.
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pontificated that capitulating to Adolf Hitler’s ultimatums over the Sudetendland had brought “peace for our time. … Go home and get a nice sleep.” World War II erupted in less than a year.
Expertly analyzed open-source intelligence could have averted the staggering misjudgments of the president and prime minister. In 1953, the shah had cravenly conspired with the CIA and the British MI6 to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who enjoyed a wide popular following.
Avenues of peaceful dissent and political opposition were then closed. Massive corruption and lavish expenditures fueled by spiraling oil revenues awakened popular anger and resentment. The shah became as despised as King Louis XVI on the eve of the storming of the Bastille. In sum, the crushing of the Pahlavi dynasty might reasonably have been deduced from open-source information unsupplemented by a single CIA intelligence officer or informant.
Hitler’s malevolent intentions could likewise have been discerned from his mad writings and belligerent actions known to the world, for example, “Mein Kampf,” the occupation of the Rhineland, Guernica, Anschluss, and the renunciation of the Versailles Treaty. Winston Churchill’s knowledge of Hitler’s burgeoning rearmament program from anonymous sources simply confirmed the self-evident.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA provided money and arms to a splintered array of resistance groups. Hatred of the Red Army was their sole commonality, and none featured democratic credentials.
Open-source information should have alerted the agency that the rival factions would savagely fight each other and seek to rule by terror as soon as the Soviet’s withdrew. But the United States remained passive. Civil war erupted. The Taliban fought its way to power in 1995 and harbored Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda wretches. And then came September 11, 2001.
But similar to the French Bourbons, the CIA forgot nothing and learned nothing. As Bob Woodward chronicles in “Bush At War,” the agency showered the Northern Alliance with money to elicit its collaboration in the war against Taliban.
When the Taliban was defeated, deep tribal, ethnic and religious divisions persisted. Warlords remained dominant. The United States foolishly believed a viable secular democracy could be cobbled together in Afghanistan with a loya jirga and the orchestrated election of President Hamid Karzai, who had been in exile several years. How much influence do you think George Washington would have had at the Constitutional Convention if he arrived after serving French kings for decades?
Afghanistan remains fractured and lawless. Humanitarian workers are routinely killed or kidnapped. Mr. Karzai’s powers are largely confined to Kabul. The Taliban and al Qaeda are resurgent along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Opium production surges. Elections set for September are very dubious.
The CIA has been equally deficient in its analysis of post-Saddam Iraq. Open-source intelligence provided convincing clues that the policies and timetables of the Coalition Provisional Authority would occasion violence, enmity, chaos, and interethnic and interreligious warfare. The CIA’s folly was to rely on the self-interested intelligence of Ahmed Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles or defectors. As Karl von Clauswitz wrote in “On War” in 1833, “War is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means.”
Open-source intelligence includes the history of civilization; the rise, decline and fall of empires; the Bible, Holy Koran, Mahabarata, Shahnameh Ferdowsi’s “Book of Kings,” and Confucius; Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the French Revolution,” and The Federalist Papers; and, fiction that illuminates the psychology of power, perfidy, avarice, and lust, like Shakespearean drama, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Charles Dickens” “A Tale of Two Cities,” or the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey.
Expert appraisals of open-source intelligence to inform national security and foreign policy will not free the CIA from predictive error. The complexities of political change defy mastery. But astute analysts are markedly superior to human intelligence when strategic policy hangs in the balance.
Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant at Bruce Fein & Associates and the Lichfield Group.