Washington is awash in intelligence agencies, some of civilians and others of the military services, 17 by one count, and a lot of what they produce is gobbledygook. Like all bureaucracies, the intelligence agencies want to protect their turf first, and writing in words (many coined on the spot) that only a small audience can understand is a way of protecting the turf.
A good deal of what we call “intelligence” is simply intelligence, a thoughtful pursuit of well-identified goals. The methods of gathering information is called “tradecraft” and a lot of it is collecting dumb facts. During the Cold War the Russians established their largest embassy outside the Communist bloc in Mexico City, and almost none of the people working there could speak Spanish. What they did well was collecting reams of ordinary material from the United States, from the Sears and Roebuck catalog to theater programs to church bulletins to telephone books from the largest American cities.
The talking heads on television have taken the measure of the intelligence agencies and we’re deep into one of the periodic hysterias about whether U.S. government intelligence is adequate. The “intelligence community,” as the agencies want to be known as, have gone to the media with stories about how their agencies are short-circuited. They complain, some with justification, that the information they send up the line to decision makers — finally to the chief decision maker, the president — is not being heard. Worse still, the word comes back from the decision makers that intelligence findings must be modified to fit the policies of the administration.
The issue at hand is the evaluation of the Islamic State, or ISIS and sometimes ISIL. Gen. Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who was squeezed out of office by White House advisers, takes umbrage at the suggestion that it was the so-called “Community” that failed to identify ISIS early on as a potent force in the Middle East. He protests that his own organization and others did, too, identify ISIS as a threat to U.S. interests. President Obama did not hear or (did not heed) the assessment more than a year ago, and called ISIS “the junior varsity.”
Now there’s apparently going to be another inquiry into whether, indeed, the collected “intelligence” was rejected on its way up the ladder to the policymakers, particularly to the president. A wise observer cannot be sanguine that the investigation will settle much. For one thing, Mr. Obama has already publicly reached a decision about what to do, and the inspector general has not yet given his verdict on what he has found.
“Intelligence” has been plagued through the ages by failure. Pearl Harbor used to be the most dramatic modern example of intelligence failure. All the evidence, including thoughtful estimates by Joseph C. Grew, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, had argued that bad things were coming from Japan. Ambassador Grew had sent a warning by way of a fellow diplomat in late 1940, almost a year before “the date that will live in infamy.”
The latest failure was the reporting which led to President George W. Bush invading Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein. The Bush critics, especially Democrats, are addicted to the belief that his decision was a perversion of intelligence. In fact, the argument that Iraq was pursuing weapons of mass destruction was built on facts and conjectures shared by all the intelligence agencies of the U.S. allies.
“Intelligence” is, after all, the work of fallible men and women who are neither 10 feet tall nor equipped with a reliable sixth sense. Better to try to recruit the best minds available into the trade, and take the lumps when they make mistakes. It’s important above all to see that their work reaches the ultimate consumer undiluted by “instructions” from a palace guard.