The Promise of American Intelligence

By virtue of his long experience on the intelligence beat, Tim Weiner is well qualified to critique the successes and failures of the CIA ("How to Make a Spy," September/October 2007). His proposal to invest $20 billion in scholarships during the next five years to train a new generation of national security officers is right ...

By virtue of his long experience on the intelligence beat, Tim Weiner is well qualified to critique the successes and failures of the CIA ("How to Make a Spy," September/October 2007). His proposal to invest $20 billion in scholarships during the next five years to train a new generation of national security officers is right on target. Substantially increasing the funding for scholarships targeting new recruits is vital if the United States hopes to nurture the development of intelligence officers who understand the language, history, and culture of foreign lands.

Weiner’s analysis is deeply flawed, however, in three ways. First, he claims that the United States has failed to create "a first-rate secret intelligence service." Despite its failures, the U.S. intelligence community has been more successful than any other espionage service in history — in both its record of accomplishments and its ability to speak truth to power. During the Cold War, every important weapons system fielded by the Soviets, from the H-bomb to missiles, was heralded in advance by American intelligence analysts. The CIA’s development of the U-2 spy plane was also a breakthrough in espionage. Moreover, one of the agency’s several useful officers in the Soviet Union, Oleg Penkovsky, provided invaluable information about Soviet military capabilities. The list of solid achievements goes on.

Weiner also has an unrealistic yardstick for measuring intelligence success. He seems to believe that the CIA ought to be able to forecast the future with perfect clairvoyance. That is simply not possible. Information is usually scarce or ambiguous, and situations are often fluid. Clearly, the CIA should have done better from time to time, but predicting the future as history unfolds in its capricious way is difficult, to say the least. Not a single journalist, politician, or scholar anticipated the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, for example. The best that intelligence agencies can do is present policy officials with reliable data and a sense of possible outcomes, and, only rarely, precise predictions. We can and must improve intelligence, but we will never banish mistakes altogether.

Finally, although Weiner’s focus on the training of intelligence officers is important, it is only one of many reforms that must be adopted to protect the United States. Basic organizational reforms are vital, including providing the new director of national intelligence with real authority to determine spy budgets and personnel. If the director continues to lack authority, intelligence will remain "stovepiped" within the 16 secret agencies. The end result will not be information sharing but bureaucratic turf protection — the very malady that contributed so strongly to the tragic intelligence failure in September 2001.

-Loch K. Johnson
Regents Professor of Political Science
School of Public and International Affairs
University of Georgia
Athens, Ga.


Weiner would have us believe that the CIA never gets anything right. He is mistaken in that conclusion, but he is correct that recruiting and retaining first-class people is the key to building a great intelligence service. He is also right to point out how hard it is to find people who, as he puts it, "can haggle in a foreign bazaar." Unfortunately, he seems to believe that if we simply spend enough money training Americans to speak difficult languages ($20 billion on training 100,000 individuals), and pay them enough ($100,000 per year as a starting salary), the problem would be solved, and the CIA would finally get it right. If only it were so simple.

First, the U.S. Congress would never agree to spend that much money on such an endeavor. Weiner surely knows that and is probably overstating his case for the sake of drama. Regrettably, suggesting such an improbable solution undermines the impact of his very important point.

Second, Weiner ignores the gains that the CIA has already made in doing precisely what he recommends. In the past few years, vast numbers of Americans have applied to work at the agency. In just the first six months of 2007, the CIA received approximately 103,000 applications, giving it a rich pool from which to recruit. Of the agency’s new hires, 40 percent have advanced degrees and 60 percent have overseas experience. During the past three years, the CIA has increased its overall language capability by almost 50 percent, and it has boosted its proficiency in such critical languages as Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, and Pashto by more than 60 percent.

Finally, Weiner does not address the two questions that I believe are even more important than language proficiency and cultural understanding. How can we assure integrity in the system and empower intelligence officers to speak truth to power? Even more important: Will presidents listen?

-Jeffrey H. Smith
Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP
Former General Counsel, CIA
Washington, D.C.

The personnel situation at the CIA is both troubling and hopeful. As Weiner asserts, the inexperience of much of the agency’s workforce is a major problem. But it also demonstrates that many Americans have responded to the call for service after 9/11, despite the CIA’s low morale and its technical and organizational problems. The question is whether all those newbies will stick around to become experienced officers.

Since at least the 1990s, there has been a glass ceiling of sorts at the five-year point in service at the CIA; many officers leave as they near that threshold. Earlier this year, Gen. Michael Hayden instituted a reform program that, among other things, sought to break that barrier.

The jury is still out on whether Hayden can claim success, and there is clearly much work that remains to be done. Weiner is right to propose major investment to create a far greater pool of qualified linguists, but linguists are only one aspect of the solution. The CIA needs an entirely new operational formula — one that moves away from an excessive reliance on technical capability. Technological mechanisms have been seductive because they pull in vast amounts of data and can be planned for and budgeted. But they are indiscriminate and generate more raw intelligence than we can process, even as they fail to provide the key intelligence from inside the enemy camp.

There must be a fresh approach purely on the human intelligence plane. We must adjust U.S. information policy, psychological warfare, and our approach to the war of ideas to encourage the recruitment of sources who spy for conviction, not cash. During the Cold War, such people were called ideological spies. Recruiting and maintaining these sources would itself contribute to the morale of CIA case officers and the agency as a whole. We need foreign-language-speaking officers to talk to these people, but we also need them to be working to a formula that validates their dedication and offers the best potential intelligence for the United States.

-John Prados
Senior Fellow
National Security Archive
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.

Tim Weiner replies:
Loch Johnson, Jeffrey Smith, and John Prados are three of the United States’ best analysts of the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. intelligence. Like them, I want the CIA to succeed in its most vital missions — to know the enemy, to guard against surprise attack, and to provide the president with the information he or she needs to create a strategy for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and the projection of U.S. power abroad.

I do not expect the CIA to have a magic crystal ball. I do believe, however, that the CIA broke its word with its false reporting on the Iraqi arsenal in 2002 and 2003. That work called into question every aspect of the agency’s conduct of espionage and intelligence analysis. To quote Judge Laurence Silberman, who led the presidential commission that investigated the weapons of mass destruction fiasco, "If the American Army had made a mistake anywhere near as bad as our intelligence community, we would expect generals to be cashiered." Instead, we got a new directorate of national intelligence — another layer of bureaucracy — when what was needed was a new generation of multitalented spies and analysts.

Smith is encouraging when he reports that the CIA’s Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, and Pashto language skills have increased sharply. They were shockingly low not long ago. Given the parlous state of White House-CIA relations since 2001, he is right to wonder if future intelligence officers will speak truth to power — and whether presidents will listen. And Prados is on the money when he notes that U.S. foreign policy must change for the CIA to have a chance to win the loyalties of foreign agents. The lower the public image of the United States abroad, the harder it will be to recruit foreign spies who will divulge secrets out of a shared respect for American values.

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