Ralph Peters, who spent 20 years as an Army intel analyst in his pre-columnist days, gives the standard answers to this question–over-reliance on technology, not enough human intel, etc. His conclusion, though, is worth reading:

Intel professionals–many of whom are far better than their sullied reputation–will respond that there was a great deal of internal debate on the issue of Iraq’s WMDs. But it’s the terms of the debate that matter: Once the system concluded, as it had done over a decade before, that Saddam had WMDs and wanted more, the internal discussions declined a fatal notch. It was no longer a matter of if, but of how much and where.

“Serious” questions could only be asked within the accepted paradigm. We had only the illusion of a debate.

Certainly, the evidence of WMDs was plentiful: Saddam had used chemical weapons in the past; inspections after Desert Storm found a vigorous WMD program, which the United Nations demanded must be dismantled; and Saddam, suicidally foolish, played cat-and-mouse games to the end–even though his stockpiles were gone.

Now we learn that even Saddam didn’t have a grip on the situation–lied to by his subordinates, he, too, believed he had more advanced programs than actually existed.

All the while, craven Iraqi exiles told us what they knew we wanted to hear.

It would have taken brilliant “out of the box” analysis to get it right. But our intelligence system is, above all, a bureaucracy. And bureaucracies cherish consistency, while shunning the risks of excellence. Bureaucracies only deliver what executives demand. Left to their own devices, they plod along in a defensive crouch.

Administrations come and go. If we truly want to improve our intelligence system, only sustained, bipartisan congressional action can force the critical changes.

We all know that members of Congress have a genius for criticism. But can they summon the will to fix a system that their own neglect and rhetoric has crippled?

My guess is no. It’s been over two years since 9/11 and they haven’t don’t it yet. Aside from legitimate concerns that too much consolidation and efficiency in the intel apparatus weakens the checks and balances necessary to protect civil liberties, institutional pressures mitigate against rapid change. Bureaucracies build strong relationships with Congress over time and make changing the status quo more difficult. More importantly, streamlining the intelligence community shifts more power to the executive branch at the expense of Congress.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Meezer says:

    I am, frankly, glad the intel was bad (although now would be a really good time for it to improve drastically). We needed to do something “big” in the middle east. We couldn’t (being who we are) just stick a pin in the map and go at it. We’ve benefitted beyond my highest expectations throughout much of the middle east. The bad intel allowed the whole “his strength is the strength of ten because his heart is pure” thing. I’m not saying this is a good policy in general, just that I’m glad it happened this way, this time.

  2. Paul says:

    It won’t happen due in large part to the motivation of half of congress.

    There is no genuine discussion or seeking of better solutions on capital hill. Instead we have a ravenous, wild eyed pack of wolves determined to make it a political victory.

    With the mobility, technology and communications of modern society, it could be argued that the threat we face today is far graver than any we have faced in the past.* Yet rather than fight that threat one party is turned the threat into a political football.

    It is sad and pathetic.


    * If it ain’t the worst, it is in the top 3.

  3. Jem says:

    Let’s set aside the issue of whether only one of the parties has an interest in “playing politics” (it’s perfectly obvious that both do). Instead, consider that deep soul searching and dramatic change are not generally characteristics found in large, bureaucratic organizations–change only comes through an existial threat to the organization. For example, to get the CIA’s attention, its leaders must credibly believe the organization is about to be gutted (at least among the managers, with their protoges also understanding that they will not be the new managers in the reformed organization). Note that the term “leader” refers as much to professionals who have risen to supervisory roles “through the ranks” and to those who are appointed through political mechanisms or military assignment. And it is not necessary that all the managers leave–just enough of them that the existing organizational power relationships are shattered and must be made anew. Note that doing this is very dangerous–the organization subjected to such treatment could be destroyed as an effective entity.

    But changing the management of the Intelligence Community will not suffice to change its culture and make it more effective–the decisionmakers the Intelligence Community supports must be smarter and more active than in the past. They must understand that consensus opinions will only very rarely be exactly correct, and thus demand consideration of alternate viewpoints (and their implications).

    Intelligence Community analysts tend to occupy a rather small and sheltered world, where consensus is encouraged (passionately when necessary), contrarian thinking punished, and the ideas of those who are not “members of the club” often ignored. Partly for this reason, as well as the benefit our adversaries obtain from oft-reported information about how we obtain the raw data used in analysis, the Intelligence Community is vulnerable to well-crafted disinformation from potential adversaries (as may well prove to be the most profound truth about the WMD issue in Iraq). The Intelligence Community needs to think hard about how to nurture and incorporate contrarian thinking, from within its analyst ranks and by making use of outsiders (including academics). Again, this is a grave challenge, with a good bit of risk.

    The alternative to massive change is to “tweak” the current system to alleviate its worst shortfalls. No matter which road the US takes, our leaders must retain a humble awareness of the weaknesses inherant in making assessments of information our adversaries intend to conceal when they make decisions.

  4. Boyd says:

    I’ve long felt that there’s a certain amount of groupthink in the Intelligence world. It always seemed amazing that everyone tended to agree on almost everything. As a rule, the folks I’ve known in that community have been independent, critical thinkers, at least in their lives away from Intelligence. These are not your stereotypical government worker-drones. The consensus that always seems to emerge is surprising to me.