May 24, 2005


Danger in 'Fixing' CIA (Richard A. Posner, May 24, 2005, LA Times)

Two cliches about our intelligence system are fast becoming dogma. The first is that intelligence failed in the 9/11 and Iraqi WMD cases because the entire intelligence system is "broken." Usually when we think of something as being broken we assume it can be fixed or replaced and, either way, that the problem can be put behind us; our watch is broken so we fix or replace it and the problem is solved.

But the intelligence system cannot be fixed like a broken watch (although it can be improved) because the conditions that cause it to fail are inherent in the nature of intelligence. Those conditions are numerous: Intelligence seeks information about people — usually foreigners having their own language and a mentality that may be so alien as to be unfathomable by us — who are assiduously concealing it. Effective intelligence requires secrecy (particularly as to sources), which widespread sharing of intelligence data compromises — yet without that sharing, it may be impossible to assemble the data into a meaningful mosaic. Intelligence is collected and analyzed in a political context that may warp intelligence analysis. Working conditions in intelligence are bad because of the unavoidable preoccupation with secrecy and security, the disdain of a democratic society for spies, and the asymmetry of failure and success in intelligence operations. [...]

The impression that the intelligence system can be "fixed" — implying that all intelligence failures are avoidable merely by the exercise of due care — leads to overselling intelligence as an element of national defense. To think that changes in organization, practices and personnel can make intelligence a fail-safe enterprise is a dangerous illusion, encouraging underinvestment in other, often more costly, means of defense, such as tightening our porous borders, screening foreign visitors more carefully and stocking vaccines against possible bioterror attacks.

Mr. Posner tiptoes up to the edge on genuine insight here--the conditions that cause intelligence to fail aren't inherent to intelligence, but to the system governments use. The three weaknesses he cites are: Americans trying to understand foreigners; secrecy as regards sources and methods; and secrecy within the intelligence bureacracy itself. All three are solved by simply moving towards open source intelligence.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

"Intelligence failure on WMD?" Only if one is of the opinion that Iraq should not have been taken out. OTC, a stunning success, saying to the world, "If we want you, we have you."

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 24, 2005 10:57 AM

The flaw in open source intellegence could be seen on kentucky Derby Day when the crowd bet on every horse but the winner. Open source intellegence will always tell you who the favorites are. The problem is that you need to know who the long shots are.

Of course, any bureaucracy will suffer from the same defect as open source in an even more extreme form. Remember Cassandra was always right and no one ever believed her.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 24, 2005 12:28 PM

As-is Intelligence "System"

Form: Bureaucracy, an arrangement designed for predictability.

Mindset: Skepticism, rationalism, reductionist materialism, overemphasizing analytic to the loss of synthetic (deduction v. induction).

Soul: Careerism, insularity, gnosticism.

Do not think of reform; think of substitution.

Posted by: Luciferous at May 24, 2005 3:15 PM