Paul Pillar

America's Amnesia About Intelligence

Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

The nation tends to lose sight of any phase in a cycle beyond the one it happens to be in at the moment. Memories of these matters are short. Most Americans have already forgotten how in the national mood that prevailed in the first couple of years after 9/11 much of what today gets labeled as a “scandal” would not have been considered at all scandalous.

Similar cycles operate regarding other dimensions involving intelligence, with the same pattern of public and political responses in one phase laying the seeds for a later and different sort of crisis. After 9/11 a leitmotif of the recriminations was that there was insufficient sharing of information across bureaucratic boundaries and between governmental agencies. Then later, with more sharing taking place, an army private or a contract techie could get access to, and publicly compromise, boatloads of information that went well beyond their own areas of responsibility. The chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Diane Feinstein, has acknowledged that the post-9/11 emphasis on more sharing probably has had something to do with the recent problems of megaleaks.

A review of the history of intelligence failures and what has been said about them afterward shows there is no limit to the scope of what might come to be deemed a failure. Anything that is later seen as a surprise outside the intelligence community is interpreted as a failure within the community. It does not matter whether or not the subject matter is something that policymakers had already been focusing on. Intelligence is not just expected to provide answers; it is expected to prevent surprise even if the relevant questions have not been asked, or even thought of, by anyone else. Accordingly, most of the intelligence community's work is not in response to specific questions or tasks levied by the policymaker-consumers, although such levies always take priority. The intelligence agencies constantly have to be seeking not just new information but new insights about new topics or even just new possibilities, if there is any chance that the possibilities will involve something that might bite us in the future.

This is part of the background to why most of the current voluminous discussion about what the president knew or what he directed regarding collection by NSA is uninformed and off the mark. It does not reflect how the intelligence community operates, or how it must operate if both it and the president are to do the jobs expected of them. NSA and the other intelligence agencies conduct their operations according to a rigorous and well-established system of establishing and regularly revising priorities for intelligence collection and analysis. Policymakers are full participants in that system, and there will be no surprises to them regarding the overall shape and scope of the agencies' collection activities. The intelligence agencies also have battalions of lawyers whose job it is to ensure that the agencies operate strictly within the limits set by statute and by executive orders. At the same time we cannot, and should not, expect the president or his senior aides to get so mired in micromanagement that they are approving the turning on of individual switches at NSA or other individual collection efforts. They simply don't have the time for it.