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Abusing Intelligence

Difficult though it may be, we need to de-politicize intelligence.

11:00 PM, Feb 15, 2007 • By MICHAEL TANJI
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SECRET INTELLIGENCE work is one of the most important tools a government can use to reduce--in Rumsfeldian parlance--"unknown unknowns." Intelligence is a national security decision-making tool, not a ball to be taken out and kicked about when cheap political points need to be scored. Yet now that the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office has released its report on the intelligence-related activities of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, that is exactly what is going on.

Leaks of secret intelligence documents are curious affairs. The general public rarely gets to see the full text of intelligence assessments because, as prolific as they can be, leakers gain no benefit from revealing the full picture. Doing so would reveal, as the recent key judgments of the national intelligence estimate on Iraq showed, that there is often a ray of light amongst all the doom and gloom.

Readers of such reports should also keep in mind that the intelligence business is neither magical nor unimpeachable. Collection work--the domain of James Bond in popular culture--is filled with tedious if dangerous drudgery. This goes doubly so for analytic work, which is carried out in mind-numbing, imagination-draining cubicle farms where creativity, ingenuity, and original thoughts are beaten out of the workforce by industrial-age processes and cold-war mindsets.

Readers get a taste of how dysfunctional intelligence work can be when they read declassified assessments, which are derided not only for their language but content. NIEs are supposed to be the best effort of the best minds the intelligence community has on a given topic, but anyone who follows the same issues without benefit of classified information could--and frequently do--produce work of equal or superior quality. This begs the question: why pay any special attention to the findings of so-called experts?

It is exactly that sort of thinking that likely kicked off the competitive intelligence analysis work carried out by the Office of Special Plans. That such an effort would be initiated should have come as no surprise to anyone who remembered that Paul Wolfowitz--Doug Feith's superior at the Pentagon--was a member of "Team B" which, provided an alternative analysis of the Soviet WMD threat. Since the Pentagon is the primary agency charged with fighting and destroying our Islamic enemies, one might say it was a foregone conclusion that those in power in the DOD would seek out differing theories, opinions, and analysis than what was offered from an intellectual collective that has frequently failed to predict or correctly judge significant world events.

The disposition of the Pentagon hierarchy notwithstanding, both pre- and postwar assessments of the intelligence community's performance have justified putting more and more diverse minds against difficult national security problems than can be found behind the walls of government agencies. Every report of U.S. intelligence performance after a so-called intelligence failure points out the importance of considering alternative views and the significance of prominently displaying dissenting opinions in intelligence assessments. This is a proposition agreed upon by every politician who is currently whining about the alleged impropriety of the OSP's actions. Either competition, open minds, and original thoughts are good or they are not: you cannot have it both ways.

There is really only one source of first-hand information on what was and was not going on in Iraq prior to the war: the captured document collection held by Pentagon and Army intelligence. The government has admitted that it cannot fully and effectively analyze all the information it had gathered from Iraq--including reports that supported connections between Iraq and terrorists--and in fact they have stopped trying. Former Director of National Intelligence Negroponte begrudgingly released portions of the archive online for public review and analysis, but the most contrived excuse in the world--that an inadvertent disclosure about Iraq's retarded nuclear weapons program helped advance the progress of an active program in Iran--shut down the public effort this past fall. If politicians are truly concerned about finding out who called it right on Iraq, the focus of their angst should be aimed squarely at current-DNI McConnell, not ex-Undersecretary Feith.