by Herbert E. Meyer,
from CATO Institute,
The performance of our country’s intelligence service is the latest example of an issue exploding into the headlines and becoming a shouting match, while failing to clarify anything about the issue itself. This explosion was ignited last fall by allegations that the Russians hacked into Hillary Clinton’s campaign to help Donald Trump win the election. The blast radius expanded after the election, when rumors surfaced that the Russians had deployed their nasty tactic of kompromat to undermine President Trump’s credibility by spreading rumors about his private behavior while in Moscow years ago. All this, on top of failures that had already wreaked havoc at the CIA and our other intelligence agencies—the 9/11 attacks themselves, the mess over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the weird 2007 National Intelligence Estimate whose key judgment was that Iran had abandoned its nuclear bomb program, Edward Snowden’s NSA espionage activities—has kept the issue of our intelligence service in the headlines.
But before addressing the question of why these failures have occurred, we need to define clearly the role and purpose of our country’s intelligence service.
Our intelligence service is our nation’s radar. Its purpose is to provide the president and his national security team with an accurate picture of what’s going on in the world and what’s likely to happen in the days, months, and years ahead.
Good intelligence is a combination of information and insight. Information is the raw material, while insight is the finished product.
The key to producing good intelligence lies in getting this combination of information and insight right. Intelligence work is like science.
Back in January, when U.S. intelligence chiefs released an unclassified version of the briefing they gave to President-Elect Trump about Russian efforts to influence the November election, Americans learned a phrase that’s unique to the world of intelligence: key judgment. Simply put, it’s the conclusion reached by our most senior intelligence officials, based not only on the evidence they were able to collect, but also on the insights it enabled them to reach based on their knowledge and experience. A key judgment isn’t the same as a jury verdict.
Precisely because key judgments go beyond evidence, an intelligence service must be trusted by policymakers to be effective. And this trust needs to be earned.
So why has our intelligence service suffered so many failures during the last decade or so, losing the trust of so many? Because it’s been run by career bureaucrats and administrators who rose to the top by managing intelligence rather than actually doing it. That’s like putting an airline executive with an MBA and a law degree into the cockpit of a jumbo jet. Make a list of our country’s leading experts on these subjects (Mideast, China, Russia, terrorism, and all the rest). How many of them have held top-level jobs in our intelligence service during the last dozen or so years? How often have the leaders of our intelligence service reached out to these people to seek their advice? The correct answers are: none and rarely.
We are still in the early days of the Trump administration, but to borrow an overused Washington cliché, we should be cautiously optimistic about the future of our intelligence service. Neither Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats nor Director of Central Intelligence Mike Pompeo are professional bureaucrats. They’ve built their careers on substance rather than on management. Each of them has proven he can talk about the key issues that confront us with an impressive level of personal knowledge and insight. Each is capable of actually doing intelligence rather than merely overseeing it.
This will require restoring the correct balance between collection and analysis. Obviously, collecting information is crucially important work. Collecting information through technology—satellites, intercepts, and so forth—is intense to the point of exhaustion. Collecting information through espionage is dangerous and sometimes fatal. All of us owe these collectors a huge debt of gratitude. What they need now is guidance from the top—a clear sense of what to look for, rather than just being told to sweep in whatever information they can in hopes it will prove useful.
Turning this raw material into first-rate intelligence will require the active participation of our country’s best geo-strategic experts in think tanks, universities, corporations, and increasingly the blogosphere. Directors Coats and Pompeo should recruit the ones they can, and be in close touch with the others. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything these experts say and write. It means listening to them and blending their information and insights with what’s been gathered covertly, in order to reach the clearest, most accurate conclusions about what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen in the future.
Finally, Coats and Pompeo will need to do the one thing their recent predecessors didn’t do, either because they didn’t recognize the need to do it or didn’t have the ability. They will need to set aside time—quite a bit of time—to sit quietly in their offices and think. Their objective must be to paint an accurate picture of what’s going on in the world and of what’s likely to happen in the future. If they can do this, President Trump and his national security team will have what they need to see America safely through today’s global turbulence: radar.
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