by Austin Bay
January 23, 2001
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld was asked if he could name "one thing" that "kept him up at night"
more than any other specific threat, terror, or trouble the Pentagon
Rumsfeld's answer was "intelligence."
Even if freighted with James Bond associations, as answers go,
"intelligence" doesn't have a lot of Hollywood impact. The tv squawk shows
didn't pick it up. If they noticed, Oprah and Geraldo yawned.
But Rumsfeld's response fingered what is the major American foreign policy
and defense weakness, even in this era of extraordinary American economic,
political, and military strength.
Faulty and inadequate intelligence is not merely a source of current SecDef
sleep deprivation, it has loomed large in real world nightmares, from Pearl
Harbor to Korea to Vietnam to the USS Cole disaster.
America's "intelligence vulnerability" is intricate, detailed, and complex.
The penalty for intelligence failure, however, is often cruelly simple. In
the defense business what you don't know will kill you. To draw an even
finer bead, what you know but understand poorly, or what you know well but
fail to use decisively, will also cost you in blood, money, and political
Here's a quick sketch of Rumsfeld's worry. "Intelligence" isn't simply data,
it's a dynamic process that includes: (1) creating and maintaining
collection capabilities (with assets from human spies to spy satellites);
(2) retrieving the info in a way that's timely and secure; (3) assessing
source reliability; (4) assimilating often contradictory information into a
meaningful "pattern," which means interpretation that is more art than
science; and (5) convincing decision makers (whose minds may be less than
open) to act on the assessments.
With the interplay of people, machines, opinion, and politics, it doesn't
take a whole of lot of snap to see how the system can stutter, stall, and
At the moment US hi-tech collection capabilities may be the world's best,
but they are aging. American intelligence is living off tech investments
made in the 1980s. The new administration will have to address that, which
The "personnel dimension" is even more troubling. Fielding human spies
(HUMINT in the jargon) is a delicate, time-consuming, and often dirty
business. Tightly-knit terrorist cells, however, can evade hi-tech
detection. Stopping Osama bin Laden means America has to have more and
better trained agents.
While the US has first-class intelligence talent, for the last two decades
the best and the brightest have had to think twice about intelligence
careers. Pay's an issue, so is prestige. Some point to Stansfield Turner's
decapitation of the CIA during the Carter Administration as a source of
The covert career also extracts personal costs. Operating in dark alleys and
hard corners requires moral trade-offs, like paying Guatemalan thugs for
tips. But thugs know thugs. Ten thousand bucks can elicit information that
saves a hundred thousand lives. The terrorist incidents CIA thwarts don't
make the news. Professional credit is hush-hush. Spies can't get on Larry
King and gush about success.
Intelligence assessment requires extraordinary talents. "Putting the puzzle
together" is an art, and government bureaucracies are tough on artists. The
facts may also fit several patterns, and the struggle then becomes which
interpretation is the most accurate. Rumsfeld knows this conflict. He
chaired an assessment team that disputed previous conclusions about US
vulnerabilities to ballistic missile attack.
Information security is a complex headache. Former CIA director John Deutch
lugging home a secrets-loaded laptop is high-level laxity at its worst.
Loose disks do sink ships. Government security procedures, from the White
House to the outhouse, need a revamp. A computer virus in private e-mail is
a pint-size demonstration of the threat to all US cyber systems. America's
most vital defense and intelligence operations are also vulnerable.
Finally, decision makers have to act on the info. Good intel may not predict
what will happen, but it should improve a leader's ability to anticipate
future crises and craft better policy alternatives.
But leaders must realize intelligence gets stale. Time lines for acting
decisively are much shorter today than they were ten years ago. Facts on the
ground can change quickly. Media access to commercial satellite and
intelligence data is part of this dynamic. 24/7 news and instant polling can
create difficult political pressures.
Dithering intel analysts as well as presidents can find themselves behind
public knowledge and perception.
It's three a.m., standard time. The SecDef's still awake.