The American Legion Magazine
November 2004
By Alan W. Dowd 

In 1929, after learning about a code-breaking intelligence operation jointly run by the Army and State Department, Secretary of State Henry Stimson promptly de-funded it and declared, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

Actually, they do, and they always have – even the gentlemen who founded the United States. In fact, in 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Committee of Correspondence, which funded propaganda, performed covert operations, developed codes, and – gasp – intercepted mail. Even back then, the country’s spies and military were not always on the same page: on one occasion, Gen. George Washington sent a task force to Bermuda with orders to seize gunpowder stored at the Royal arsenal. But when Washington’s ships arrived, the ammunition was gone – it had already been secretly acquired by agents of the Continental Congress.

Ever since, the high-stakes nature of intelligence operations and the self-critical nature of our representative system of government have conspired to expose intelligence failures and to impugn this “ungentlemanly” line of work. This has never been more apparent than in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and Iraq war, as congressmen and commissions seem more concerned about fixing blame than fixing the intelligence problem.

The good news is that U.S. history offers a roadmap for how to deal with intelligence failures. The bad news: this isn’t the first time intelligence problems have led to serious political and military problems.  

Blame Game. America’s entry into both world wars is often blamed on intelligence failures, but some of the blame is unfair. Intelligence services actually played a crucial role in uncovering the Zimmerman Telegram, which detailed German plans to use Mexico as a proxy for war against the United States. Of course, it was British intelligence services that cracked the German code, underscoring how inadequate U.S. intelligence was.

The Army soon created Military Intelligence Section 8, which scored perhaps its most significant successes after the war. MI-8 broke the code Japanese negotiators used to cable back and forth to Tokyo during the Washington Naval Conference in 1921 and 1922, enabling U.S. diplomats to outmaneuver their counterparts. Before the decade was out, however, MI-8 would be out of business, thanks to Stimson. The embittered head of MI-8 later wrote a book airing the organization’s many secrets (sound familiar?), and the Japanese changed their codes.

The dismantling of MI-8 contributed to the country’s limited code-breaking capabilities at the onset of World War II. Even so, America’s hamstrung intelligence assets actually sounded the alarm over Japan in time to avert disaster.

In January 1941, almost a full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Secretary of the Navy predicted that hostilities on the part of Imperial Japan “would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the fleet or the naval base at Pearl Harbor.” Two weeks before the attacks, the Navy Department warned of “a surprise aggressive movement in any direction by the Japanese.” Similar warnings were issued Dec. 1 and Dec. 7.

One postwar inquiry concluded that officials in Washington and Hawaii “were fully conscious of the danger from air attack … and they were adequately informed of the imminence of war.” Congress also found that the Navy and War departments had “failed to give careful and thoughtful consideration to the intercepted messages from Tokyo to Honolulu.”

Because of the imprecise nature of the warnings, U.S. officials in Hawaii were more concerned about protecting against unconventional attacks, such as sabotage by Japanese expatriates, than about bracing for a conventional military attack. (Oddly, on Sept. 11, 2001, Washington seemed more concerned about conventional threats from without – a rogue missile attack, a surging China, a crumbling Russia – than about unconventional attacks from within.)

Although the intelligence was imprecise, it was still sounding the alarm. Policymakers at Pearl and in D.C. were not yet listening – or, perhaps better said, the right policymakers weren’t listening. This foreshadows Sept. 11. In the run-up to Pearl Harbor, as in run-up to 9/11, intelligence assets knew something was coming – they just didn’t know exactly where or when. In both cases, they were trying to piece together a puzzle without knowing what it was supposed to look like.  

From SOS to OSS. In what would become a pattern, intelligence reform followed intelligence failure. Just as the Zimmerman Telegram led to MI-8, Dec. 7, 1941, led to redoubled efforts at code-breaking – by mid-1942, the Navy was intercepting some 60 percent of Tokyo’s naval communications – and to the creation of the Office of Strategic Services.

At the height of its power, the OSS fielded 13,000 intelligence agents. Working with their more seasoned British counterparts, OSS agents supported Allied operations in North Africa, developed target lists for the bombing campaigns in Europe and secretly brokered the surrender of Nazi forces in Italy. But the State Department and military branches blocked the upstart OSS from decoding Axis communications, thus stunting its capabilities.

Repeating Stimson’s mistakes, President Truman shut down the OSS after the war and unwittingly continued the pattern. Yet two years later, he signed the National Security Act and created the Central Intelligence Agency to make sense of the vast amounts of intelligence landing on his desk.

After the surprise invasion of South Korea, which led to the secondary surprise of China’s entry in the war, Truman formed a special committee to examine the nation’s intelligence gaps. In the span of a year, he created the National Security Agency by executive fiat in part because America’s nascent Intelligence Community (IC) needed a central node for monitoring and deciphering information from the Cold War’s many fronts.

A decade later, in a bid to overthrow Fidel Castro, the CIA committed perhaps its greatest blunder. After delivering some 1,400 exiles to the Cuban coast, the CIA hoped to spark a counter-revolution with little risk or linkage to Washington. The ill-conceived operation “had all the disadvantages of involving America morally and politically,” recalls historian Paul Johnson, “with none of the real advantages of U.S. air and naval participation.” The CIA’s exiles were decimated.

Yet the IC soon redeemed itself, mainly because President Kennedy gave it a chance to do so. Rather than retreating into a cocoon of commissions, he reminded America and the world that Castro and communism were the problem, not the CIA. And Kennedy remained doggedly committed to containing communism through intelligence activities. In fact, photoreconnaissance and signals intelligence intercepted by the NSA proved invaluable in uncovering a Kremlin plan to nuclearize Cuba a year after the Bay of Pigs.

But the pattern continued for the balance of the Cold War, with more perfect storms of poor policymaking and incomplete intelligence, more complacency, more ups, more downs.

In the wake of Vietnam, policymakers tore into the Intelligence Community with gusto, this time using reform as way to weaken rather than strengthen. The Church Commission, named after Idaho Sen. Frank Church, led the way by airing some of the IC’s dirtiest little secrets – plots to kill foreign leaders, develop poisons, harass civil-rights leaders, use illegal wiretaps and build secret databases of U.S. citizens.

The commission ultimately made 100 recommendations, many aimed at limiting the IC’s ability to monitor threats, conduct domestic surveillance and target foreign leaders. But if the commissioners’ motives were good, the results were not. “Over in the Soviet bloc, we regarded it as a triumph,” according to Ion Mihai Pacepa, former chief of Romania’s communist-era spy agency. He recalls how Ceausescu popped open a bottle of champagne after hearing about the Church report. The damage was even worse at home: after the Church Commission, as Derek Leebaert writes in “The Fifty-Year Wound,” “the CIA would rarely be given the benefit of the doubt by increasingly skeptical Americans.”

Yet the CIA proved resilient. In the early 1980s, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, CIA Director William Casey – an OSS veteran – told his deputies to “go out and kill me 10,000 Russians until they give up.” Working with the mujahadeen, the CIA did that and then some. Indeed, it pays to recall that some of the greatest intelligence success stories are never known to the general public. Even so, the CIA was caught unawares as the Soviet empire collapsed a short time later. 

Blame Game II. The point: intelligence will always be a mix of science and art, guesswork and facts, gut instinct and calculation. When humans interpret the motives and actions of other humans, we are bound to get it wrong sometimes, making stand-up policymaking and statesmen-like politics crucial.

After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt focused on winning the war rather than winning political points. He created the OSS, poured resources into code-breaking and prodded America’s embryonic IC to learn from Britain. Truman’s example reminds us that mid-course corrections are sometimes necessary, even if it means giving critics fodder for political attacks. And JFK is instructive for what he didn’t do, namely packing it in and concluding that the Cold War was no longer worth waging because of an intelligence mistake.

Thankfully, it’s the policymakers in Congress and the White House – not intelligence analysts – who decide where to deploy the nation’s resources and how to fight the nation’s enemies. Given that intelligence agencies underestimated Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program in 1991, it’s no surprise that they extrapolated the worst in 2003. And if, as some observers have suggested, Saddam was pretending to have weapons of mass destruction as an internal deterrent, then it seems unfair for policymakers to blame the IC for reporting what its sources inside Iraq were saying. At the very least, it’s disingenuous after a decade of budget cuts.

Moreover, after being criticized for not moving aggressively enough against Osama bin Laden, for not putting all the puzzle pieces together, it seems unfair to blame the IC for being aggressive in building the case against Saddam Hussein – a man who had the means and motives to attempt something worse than Sept. 11.

Of course, postwar intelligence may prove as malleable as prewar intelligence: officials at the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency have surmised that Iraq’s WMDs may have been trucked to Syria. In spring 2004, sarin and mustard shells began springing up among conventional caches. And nine of Saddam’s foremost WMD scientists have been killed in postwar Iraq. All had been interviewed by the coalition’s WMD fact-finding group, as TheWeekly Standard has reported. 

Questions. The search for these weapons of mass confusion reminds us that intelligence is much more complex than simply reading the enemy’s mail, especially in an age of terror. In fact, it often yields more questions than answers.

Is it better for a president to act on imprecise intelligence and risk ridicule, or to wait until the intelligence is undeniable and risk a U.S. city? Is it fair to expect the IC to think like the enemy? And can we fix the IC without first breaking this pattern – a pattern that begins with our own complacency, leads to poor policy execution and usually ends in embarrassment, if not disaster?



What went wrong? The underestimation that led to Sept. 11 and overestimation that led to Iraq came after more than a decade of serious intelligence problems.

-After the Gulf War of 1990-1991, the IC conceded it had underestimated Iraq’s push for nuclear weapons by nine years.

-The IC failed to thwart a number of major attacks in the 1990s, from the first World Trade Center attack to the Khobar Towers and U.S. embassy bombings. When President Clinton retaliated with missile strikes on a purported chemical-weapons plant in Sudan in 1998, the IC came under criticism for shaky intelligence.

-In the late 1990s, intelligence assets tracked bin Laden and had him in their sights on several occasions, but disagreement among policymakers about whether to kill or capture him allowed him to escape.

-Before 9/11, the FBI and CIA were barred from sharing information about terror suspects. Likewise, key agencies wrangled over the use of armed Predator drones in Afghanistan.

-On 9/11, just 1 percent of the CIA’s 18,000 employees were tasked to counter-terrorism.

 What went right? Given the press accounts of the past 12 months, it would be easy to conclude that the IC can do nothing right. In reality, nothing is further from the truth.

-IC memos throughout the late 1990s warned of bin Laden’s determination to attack America. A 1999 report predicted that terrorists could “crash-land an aircraft … into the Pentagon … CIA or the White House.”

-The CIA disrupted planned attacks in eight different countries in 1999.

-In 2002, the CIA targeted and killed the Yemeni terrorists who planned the USS Cole attack. In 2003, the CIA penetrated deep into Saddam’s inner circle, deep enough to come within just minutes of killing the dictator after a mole inside his security detail informed the CIA of his whereabouts.

-The ground war in Afghanistan was won largely by CIA agents and special forces, and as Tom McInerny and Paul Vallely observe in “Endgame,” “the integration of military special-operations forces and the clandestine services of the CIA was a marked success” in Iraq.

-Libya’s decision to end its WMD program is a result of U.S. intelligence efforts. Also, it was the CIA that unearthed how Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan shared nuclear secrets with North Korea, Libya and Iran.

Global failure In its 521-page report on prewar intelligence in Iraq, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence leveled heavy criticism on the IC:

-The committee blasted the IC for succumbing to “group-think” that led analysts to interpret “ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program” and for painting an intelligence picture that overstated the Iraqi threat.

-The committee found “significant shortcomings in almost every aspect of the Intelligence Community’s human-intelligence collection efforts.” Because of these shortcomings, the IC relied too heavily on defectors and foreign governments. This created a cycle that fed on itself and led to what Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., called “a global intelligence failure.”

-Even so, the committee conceded that Iraq’s predisposition to deceive and unwillingness to come clean “could have led analysts to the reasonable conclusion” that Saddam still had his WMDs. Additionally, the committee concluded that IC assessments regarding Saddam’s missile arsenal, likely use of his own agents to conduct terror attacks, connections to certain terror groups and providing safe haven to al-Qaeda were all reasonable.