The Magazine

Privatize the CIA

Our intelligence community could use more -competition.

Feb 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 20 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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As a result, the products of the intelligence community lack both cultural nuance and a feel for personalities. Too many analysts assume that Iranian officials approach diplomacy with the sincerity of their U.S. counterparts; they cannot imagine the prospect that seminary-trained clerics practice religiously sanctioned dissimulation. Hence, many intelligence professionals at the time believed that Iranian president Mohammad Khatami was sincere in his calls for a dialogue of civilizations; now it is apparent that he pursued Iran's covert nuclear program with the same energy as his successor. When European leaders and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright relaxed sanctions and offered an olive branch to Tehran, the Islamic Republic used the resulting hard currency influx to upgrade Iran's military and fuel its covert nuclear program.

Cubicle isolation is also apparent to anyone who knows the people about whom dossiers are compiled. When writing biographies of Iraqi politicians, CIA analysts commonly erred on such basic information as the languages they spoke, let alone their predilections or personalities.

Extreme compartmentalization also reduces the chances for sound comparative analysis. As the CIA has grown, its analysts' areas of responsibility have narrowed. Expertise in arcane subjects should be welcome, but if it comes at the expense of comparative analysis, much can be lost. Analysis of Iranian nuclear capabilities, for example, should not be separated from study of the North Korean ballistic missile program or Pakistani weapons design. Nor should Iran area specialists be segregated from al Qaeda analysts. Rogue regimes and terrorists do not always compartmentalize relationships as neatly as does the U.S. bureaucracy.

The CIA does have many good analysts, but the organizational prioritization of group-think and seniority strangles them. Bureaucratic interests dominate. As reports filter up through multiple levels, officials insert trap-door statements to assert the opposite of any conclusion so that if the report's thrust is wrong, the agency can be absolved of responsibility. A single sentence questioning Saddam's weapons programs, for example, might be buried on page 17 of a report otherwise declaring their existence.

As former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht points out, the formulaic assumption that any watershed event is five-to-ten years away is both the product of caution and a way to avoid acknowledging ignorance. Repeated statements that Iran is five-to-ten years away from autonomous nuclear capability, for example, have become the 21st-century equivalent of the Ten-Year Rule that left Great Britain scrambling to meet the challenge of a resurgent Germany prior to World War II.

Secrecy protects shoddy analysis. Langley may oust analysts for security reasons, but, like any government body, it seldom purges mediocrity. While intelligence analysts conflate questioning with politicization, the desire to avoid inquiry is often a sign of lack of confidence. Analysts who publish openly and under their own names must, for the sake of their reputations, produce solid work or else they will hemorrhage credibility and jeopardize their employment. Too often, though, intelligence briefers cannot answer basic questions. When queries are followed by requests to see raw intelligence, the source material does not always support the proffered conclusions. Intelligence professionals should be able and willing to defend their products.

It is this phenomenon that was at the root of tension between the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence and the Defense Department's Iraq policy shop. The forthcoming report of an investigation by the Pentagon's Office of Inspector General into the Office of Special Plans will absolve the unit of charges that it produced its own intelligence--it did not--but the report may criticize the office for questioning too much the products it received from Langley. But to move toward a standard of blind acceptance of intelligence would be both dangerous and wrong.