On October 20, the Financial Times reported that two Chinese test launches of hypersonic nuclear-capable weapons “…stunned the Pentagon and US intelligence because China managed to demonstrate a brand new weapons capability.”
That report was typical of too many others. Our intelligence community (“IC”) is perpetually surprised by events it has the job of predicting. There are far too many examples to catalog here, but a few demonstrate the problem. The IC was surprised by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, by the 9-11 attacks, by the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after the 2003 invasion (after then-CIA director George Tenet told then-President Bush the case for proving Iraq had WMD was a “slam dunk’) and by the Taliban’s ability to take over of Afghanistan in only thirty days.
The Chinese tests should have been no surprise. The U.S., Russia – and China, of course – have been developing hypersonic weapons for more than a decade.
According to the Director of National Intelligence’s website, Congress appropriated $81.7 billion for the IC to spend in 2019 and $85.8 billion in 2020. That’s more than enough to pay for the resources to do the job. But from the track record of the IC, it’s clear we’re getting a lousy return on our investment.
Why? Is the IC content with its long record of failures, is its political agenda more important than performing its mission or both?
After 9-11, the intelligence community was reorganized, and several new agencies were added. But some of the basic problems were not addressed, and historical lessons apparently have been forgotten. It boils down to a level of incompetence that is characteristic of the Biden administration.
An October 6 New York Times report revealed a top-secret CIA cable warning all stations that an unusual number of informants recruited in other countries had been captured or killed. The cable reportedly also warned about major problems that had plagued the agency in recent years, “…including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counter-intelligence risks.”
Lazy or incompetent agents can be guilty of some or all of these faults. If these faults are still common within the agency, and inadequate assessment of counter-intelligence risks is pervasive, the IC leadership has evidently chosen incompetence over intelligence gathering and analysis.
Another big problem is that intelligence consumers – the president and parts of his cabinet, senior military leaders and others – do not interact with intelligence analysts sufficiently for each to understand the others’ needs. Some presidents have even ignored the “Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing” which is supposed to raise every issue of importance for the president’s consideration.
Former President Obama was infamous for ignoring the “DIB.” Former President Trump – after his campaign was subjected to the Russia hoax, the CIA/FBI “counter-intelligence investigation” and the Mueller investigation – distrusted the IC for good reason. They had become his political enemy.
As the IC’s ridiculous pursuit of Mr. Trump and his campaign demonstrated, the politicization of the IC and abuse of power by it can be one of the biggest dangers our nation can face. Under Mr. Obama, the IC’s devolution from intelligence to partisan politics was so swift and so thorough it is hard to believe it could happen in a democracy. Anything anti-Trump became fair game for the IC.
The CIA-FBI “Crossfire Hurricane” counter-intelligence investigation of Mr. Trump’s campaign was a purely political exercise. The people who ran it, such as then-CIA director James Brennan and then-FBI director James Comey, are gone, but the problem lingers.
During the last months of the Trump administration, Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made two calls to his Chinese counterparts to tell them that an American attack on China wasn’t imminent. Those calls – one in October 2020 and one in January 2021 — were supposedly based on intelligence reports Gen. Milley received informing him that the Chinese believed the US was about to attack them.
According to an October 12 Washington Times report, Mr. Trump’s most senior advisers, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John O’Brien and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, “…all said there were no indications of a Chinese war scare in the final weeks before the presidential election.”
It would be impossible for such reports not to have reached Messrs. Pompeo, O’Brien and Ratcliffe, and president Trump unless, for political reasons, contrived by the IC to discredit Mr. Trump and withheld from his key advisers.
If what Messrs. Pompeo, O’Brien and Ratcliffe said was untrue, we’d be awash in a flood of IC leaks to the media attempting to prove their statements false. No such leaks were reported.
It’s entirely fair to conclude that the IC is still pursuing its own political agenda. Politics, if it pervades intelligence gathering and analysis, is fatal to intelligence work. Policymaking in the absence of reliable intelligence is mere guesswork.
The fact that the IC is continuously surprised by significant events and the mess revealed by the New York Times’s publication of the CIA cable combine to prove the need for a comprehensive overhaul of the IC. Its faults must be repaired, and whatever political agenda it is pursuing eradicated entirely.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”