by Austin Bay
January 23, 2001
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense DonaldRumsfeld was asked if he could name "one thing" that "kept him up at night"more than any other specific threat, terror, or trouble the Pentagonconfronts.
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 showsdidn't pick it up. If they noticed, Oprah and Geraldo yawned.
But Rumsfeld's response fingered what is the major American foreign policyand 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 SecDefsleep deprivation, it has loomed large in real world nightmares, from PearlHarbor 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. Inthe defense business what you don't know will kill you. To draw an evenfiner bead, what you know but understand poorly, or what you know well butfail to use decisively, will also cost you in blood, money, and politicalcapital.
Here's a quick sketch of Rumsfeld's worry. "Intelligence" isn't simply data,it's a dynamic process that includes: (1) creating and maintainingcollection capabilities (with assets from human spies to spy satellites);(2) retrieving the info in a way that's timely and secure; (3) assessingsource reliability; (4) assimilating often contradictory information into ameaningful "pattern," which means interpretation that is more art thanscience; and (5) convincing decision makers (whose minds may be less thanopen) to act on the assessments.
With the interplay of people, machines, opinion, and politics, it doesn'ttake a whole of lot of snap to see how the system can stutter, stall, andoccasionally break.
At the moment US hi-tech collection capabilities may be the world's best,but they are aging. American intelligence is living off tech investmentsmade in the 1980s. The new administration will have to address that, whichmeans budget.
The "personnel dimension" is even more troubling. Fielding human spies(HUMINT in the jargon) is a delicate, time-consuming, and often dirtybusiness. Tightly-knit terrorist cells, however, can evade hi-techdetection. Stopping Osama bin Laden means America has to have more andbetter trained agents.
While the US has first-class intelligence talent, for the last two decadesthe best and the brightest have had to think twice about intelligencecareers. Pay's an issue, so is prestige. Some point to Stansfield Turner'sdecapitation of the CIA during the Carter Administration as a source ofdecline.
The covert career also extracts personal costs. Operating in dark alleys andhard corners requires moral trade-offs, like paying Guatemalan thugs fortips. But thugs know thugs. Ten thousand bucks can elicit information thatsaves a hundred thousand lives. The terrorist incidents CIA thwarts don'tmake the news. Professional credit is hush-hush. Spies can't get on LarryKing and gush about success.
Intelligence assessment requires extraordinary talents. "Putting the puzzletogether" is an art, and government bureaucracies are tough on artists. Thefacts may also fit several patterns, and the struggle then becomes whichinterpretation is the most accurate. Rumsfeld knows this conflict. Hechaired an assessment team that disputed previous conclusions about USvulnerabilities to ballistic missile attack.
Information security is a complex headache. Former CIA director John Deutchlugging home a secrets-loaded laptop is high-level laxity at its worst.Loose disks do sink ships. Government security procedures, from the WhiteHouse to the outhouse, need a revamp. A computer virus in private e-mail isa pint-size demonstration of the threat to all US cyber systems. America'smost vital defense and intelligence operations are also vulnerable.
Finally, decision makers have to act on the info. Good intel may not predictwhat will happen, but it should improve a leader's ability to anticipatefuture crises and craft better policy alternatives.
But leaders must realize intelligence gets stale. Time lines for actingdecisively are much shorter today than they were ten years ago. Facts on theground can change quickly. Media access to commercial satellite andintelligence data is part of this dynamic. 24/7 news and instant polling cancreate difficult political pressures.
Dithering intel analysts as well as presidents can find themselves behindpublic knowledge and perception.
It's three a.m., standard time. The SecDef's still awake.