Respond to this Article July/August 2001

The CIA's Weakest Link

What our intelligence agencies need are more professors

By Loch Johnson

Early one morning in October 1994, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry rose from behind his oversized desk to greet General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Under his arm, the general carried a portfolio of satellite photographs of Iraq. He spread the imagery across a conference table in the drab, bunker-like room.

Using a pointer, Shalikashvili directed Perry's attention to a disturbing set of photographs. Improbable as it might have seemed coming just three and a half years after a United States-led coalition blasted Saddam Hussein to his knees, elements of the Republican Guard (Saddam's elite troops), supported by mechanized infantry, armor, and tank units, were moving at a rapid clip southward toward Al Basrah, a mere 30 miles from the Kuwaiti border. The force aimed like an arrow at the Al Jahra heights overlooking Kuwait City, in an apparent repeat of the same maneuver that led to the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait in 1990. At its current speed, the Republican Guard would pour across the Kuwaiti border in a couple of days.

Perry quickly ordered a U.S. armored brigade stationed in Kuwait to the Iraqi border. With a rising sense of uneasiness, the secretary of defense and the top Pentagon brass waited as young captains and lieutenants brought new batches of imagery into Perry's office over the next 24 hours. Upwards of 10,000 Iraqi troops had amassed in an area near Al Basrah. Steadily the number rose to 50,000, some bivouacking within 12 miles of the border. The American brigade had arrived, but consisted of only 2,000 lightly armed Marines.

While the United States also had 200 warplanes in the area on standby alert, the Iraqi armored force dwarfed the U.S. presence. President Bill Clinton ordered 450 more warplanes to Kuwait, along with the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and a Marine contingent from Camp Pendleton. The aircraft carrier George Washington steamed toward the Red Sea. None of these forces, though, would arrive in time to halt an invasion of Kuwait. The secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff faced the strong possibility of a rout that would quickly wipe away the small American brigade assembled at the border.

When the next set of photos arrived, Perry and Shalikashvili could finally sigh with relief. The Iraqi troops had suddenly stopped and some elements were already turning back toward Baghdad.

The good news was that photographic intelligence may have prevented the outbreak of another war in the Persian Gulf. "Had the intelligence arrived three or four days later, it would have been too late," recalls a high-ranking official who followed the events in the Pentagon during those tense autumn days. But the episode carried bad news with it, too. Even though vital intelligence had arrived in time to allow Perry a chance to put up some semblance of defense at the border, the thousands of troops in the Republican Guard would have overwhelmed the single Marine brigade. The best the secretary could hope for was that the Marines would intimidate Saddam. Fortunately, the bluff worked.

Retrospective studies of the satellite photography taken of Iraq before the crisis disclosed palpable clues that, for weeks, Saddam had been gathering another invasion force near Baghdad. The photos showed trickles of Iraqi troops and armor moving toward Al Basrah that would eventually turn into a threatening flood.

Intelligence analysts in the National Photographic Intelligence Center had missed these signs, as had everyone at the CIA. The problem hadn't been lack of information; high-ranking government officials have access to enough paperwork and imagery each day to cover every desk in the Pentagon. But photos are just photos and, apparently, nobody had looked through them carefully enough to notice the accretion of troop buildups that signaled the possibility of an invasion.

That close call in the Middle East should have been a rude awakening to the nation's intelligence agencies that their analytical capacities were not up to snuff. Yet today, the nation's spy agencies are still relying on a technological edge to keep the country abreast of looming international crises, and are giving short shrift to the people who synthesize and interpret the mounds of intelligence pouring in from around the globe. The resulting analytical failures have shown up repeatedly since 1994 in a string of embarrassing--and often deadly--disasters.

* In 1999, CIA and other intelligence analysts provided bombing coordinates for NATO that designated the Chinese embassy in Belgrade as a local arms depot. Satellite-guided bombs from a B-2 NATO bomber killed three members of the embassy staff, injured 20 more, and sparked a wave of anti-American nationalism in China that continues to be felt, most recently in the Chinese leadership's truculent response to the U.S. Navy spy plane incident this spring.

* Also in 1999, the congressional Cox Report disclosed the possibility that a Chinese intelligence agent inside the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory had stolen nuclear weapons secrets. Subsequent reporting by The Washington Post indicated that, four years prior to the Cox Report, the CIA had acquired 13,000 technical documents from a Chinese defector that pointed to the theft of U.S. nuclear secrets, yet the agency had never gotten around to translating the documents into English.

* Last year, a suicide bomber detonated a dinghy full of explosives next to the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 Navy personnel and nearly sinking the warship.

* Despite mounds of evidence that trouble was brewing, intelligence agencies failed to predict the latest outbreak of violence in Macedonia (see "Missing the Boat In Macedonia," p. 12).

In the aftermath of the Cole bombing, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman criticized "the obscene failure of intelligence" to anticipate the attack. He dismissed America's intelligence efforts as a "$30-billion jobs program that takes the most wondrous products of space and electronic technology and turns them into useless mush."

This kind of criticism--along with the litany of disasters that preceded it--recently prompted President George W. Bush to order a comprehensive review of the nation's intelligence capabilities. The review, due to arrive on the president's desk by summer's end, is designed to gauge how well equipped America's secret agencies are to cope with the complex array of new and lingering challenges that confront the United States in the aftermath of the Cold War. To judge from their recent record, the answer may be: not too well.

Fading Images

At their best, agents and spy machines (whether satellites, telephone taps, or some other mechanical means) operate in harmony to provide a full and accurate portrait of international events for intelligence analysts who synthesize and interpret the information for Washington decision-makers.

During the Cold War, satellite imagery grew more reliable, and analysts grew increasingly better at interpreting those images. As a result, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could expect to mount a major attack without tipping off one another's spy satellites--a vital component of deterrence that helped to keep peace. The photographs from space, augmented by signals intelligence and agent espionage, calmed the nuclear angst and relaxed trigger fingers in both ideological camps by reducing the likelihood that a World War III could quickly ignite by way of a blitz attack or a misunderstanding. The sophisticated machines also allowed the pursuit of arms-control accords with a reasonably high level of confidence that serious cheating could be detected.

In more recent years, humans and machines have worked together synergistically to apprehend leading terrorists, among them Carlos the Jackal in Sudan, as well as the suspected ringleader of the World Trade Center bombing in the Philippines and two Libyan intelligence officers convicted in the bombing of Pan Am 103. In one of the CIA's least heralded but most striking accomplishments, a combination of wiretaps, agent reports, and savvy analysis led to the capture in 1992 of Abimael Guzman, the founder of the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru, and to the arrest in 1999 of its leader, Ramirez Durand (aka Feliciano).

But such triumphs are becoming few and far between. In a time of accelerated technological advances around the globe, the United States faces serious challenges in trying to stay one step ahead of its potential enemies.

For instance, its current edge in satellite photography is rapidly eroding. In 1999, the private U.S. company Space Imaging launched a surveillance satellite named Ikonos II that yields photographs almost as detailed as the American government's most secret satellite photography, pictures of almost any part of the planet for sale to anyone with cash or a credit card. Within a few years, Iraq and other pariah nations will be able to manufacture homegrown spy satellites or acquire commercially available substitutes (the Rent-a-Satellite option) which will provide them with their own capacity for battlefield transparency--a huge advantage for the United States during the Persian Gulf War.

America's advantages in signals intelligence are in decline as well. The listening satellites of the National Security Agency (NSA) are designed to capture analog communications from out of the air. The world, though, is rapidly switching to digital cell phones, along with underground and undersea fiber-optic modes of transmission--glass conduits that rely on light waves instead of electrons to carry information.

These new forms of communication are much harder to tap, leaving the NSA with a sky full of increasingly irrelevant satellites. Furthermore, the NSA has traditionally depended on its skills at decoding to gain access to foreign diplomatic communications, but nations and terrorist groups are becoming more clever at encrypting their messages with complex, computer-based technologies that can stymie even the most experienced NSA code-breakers.

If the United States wants to maintain its edge in the coming decades, spy agenices are going to have to rely on much more than fancy gadgets. They're going to require more, smarter people using those gadgets, deciphering what comes back, and figuring out new ways to capture information. Yet the number and quality of people who do that critical work--the lowly intelligence analysts--seems to be declining precisely at the time that other changes in the world of intelligence make their role even more important.

Snake-Eaters v. The Ivory Tower

The romantic image of the CIA agent is that of the old-fashioned James Bond spy, or the kinds of characters who light up the pages of John Le Carré novels. The real-life counterparts to these fictional heroes are the CIA's case officers, people who live abroad for much of their careers, often in very dangerous settings, and are responsible for recruiting and handling native agents who steal secrets for the United States. Some case officers--the paramilitary specialists--are macho war fighters sporting blue-tinted aviation glasses, well-defined biceps, and a certain swagger. Their roles in blowing up bridges in Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s earned them the monikers "knuckle-draggers" and "snake-eaters," evoking the image of men crawling on their bellies through dense jungles.

Case officers dominate the culture of the CIA; their bravado and braggadocio have helped overshadow the equally critical role of--and growing need for--the intelligence analyst. Analysts are the scholars within the intelligence agencies, usually Ph.D.s who are country or regional experts. During the CIA's early days, the stereotypical analyst was an Ivy League professor-on-leave, replete with elbow-patched tweed jacket, button-down collar, and old-boy striped tie; today, analysts are less tweedy and come from a wide range of colleges. Most have an academic air about them and refer to the CIA's 258-acre compound in Virginia as "the campus."

Reportedly numbering a couple of thousand at the CIA, analysts are expected to sift through secret information stolen from abroad by CIA case officers and their agents, blend this information with facts found in the public domain, and prepare reports.

Analysts are supposed to be--and usually are--thoughtful, unbiased, and empirical, with sharp eyes for nuance and the academic's training to consider every perspective. Their workplace is the library, increasingly the virtual one inside a word processor which connects them to other analysts throughout the 13 secret agencies in a secure network called Interlink.

Culturally, analysts stand out in sharp relief from case officers, who are widely considered the CIA's elite--especially by themselves. Often the two cultures clash. "The analysts are a bunch of academics," a former CIA director told me, "while [case officers] would be entirely comfortable in the Marine Corps."

Until 1995, case officers had a special suite of offices at CIA headquarters, closed off from analysts by combination locks. In an attempt to overcome this chasm, an experiment in "co-location" is currently under way, seating a small percentage of case officers and analysts together at CIA headquarters. Already, though, some case officers have skittered away from this "partnership," as if from an unappealing blind date.

Over the years, case officers have been afforded increasing status at the CIA. Indeed, the agency's top position has been filled from the ranks of case officers a number of times but only once by an analyst (Robert M. Gates from 1991-93). This fact, and even more importantly, the dismissive attitude of case officers toward them, has bruised the morale of analysts, and helps explain why the agency is suffering from a dramatic lack of analytic brainpower.

Between 1993 and 1997, fully 1,000 analysts retired from the CIA alone--a one-third reduction, back to 1977 levels. By the year 2005, CIA director George Tenet anticipates that up to 40 percent of the workforce at the agency will have served for five years or less. As a result, the secret agencies lack enough talented interpreters of information to make sense of the data that flood their offices. On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, the Defense Intelligence Agency had only two analysts assigned to study intelligence on Iraq.

Across the board of the various intelligence methods, America's analytic depth is uncomfortably shallow. Imagery analysis in particular has suffered from inadequate attention. The hundreds of photographs a day that return to the United States from surveillance satellites have overwhelmed interpreters. A senior congressional staffer with responsibilities for intelligence oversight recently complained that "less than half of the pictures taken by our satellites ever get looked at by human eyes," or, for that matter, "by any sort of mechanized device or computerized device detecting change."

Indian Food

On May 11, 1998, two months after taking office, India's new ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), detonated three nuclear weapons in the country's first underground test since 1974. The Clinton administration learned about the test through a BJP press release.

America's intelligence agencies had been well aware that the Indians intended to accelerate their nuclear program. After all, this is what top-level party officials had been saying publicly throughout the Indian election season. Even the average tourist wandering around India in the spring of 1998 and listening to the local media would have concluded that a resumption of the program was likely. What surprised the intelligence agencies was how fast the test had taken place.

It was "a good kick in the ass for us," admits a senior CIA official. In part, the miscalculation was a result of what a CIA inquiry into the matter referred to as "mirror-imaging." Agency analysts assumed that Indian politicians were just like their American counterparts: Both made a good many campaign promises, few of which were ever kept. To win votes for boldness, Indian politicians in the victorious party had promised a nuclear test; now that the election hoopla was over, surely they would back away from this rash position. Such was the thinking at the CIA.

Officials in India also successfully evaded America's spy satellites. The Indians knew exactly when the satellite cameras would be passing over the nuclear testing facility in the Rajasthan Desert; in synchrony with these flights (every three days), scientists camouflaged their preparations. Ironically, U.S. officials had explicitly informed the Indian government about the timing of U.S. satellite coverage for South Asia in hopes of impressing upon them the futility of trying to conceal test activity. Even without this unintended assistance, though, the Indians could have figured out the cycles for themselves; even amateur astronomers can track the orbits of spy satellites.

Moreover, the Indians had become adroit at deception, both technical and political. On the technical side, the ground cables normally moved into place for a nuclear test were nowhere to be seen in U.S. satellite photographs of the site. The Indians had devised less visible ignition techniques. The Indians also stepped up activities at their far-removed missile-testing site in an attempt to draw the attention of spy cameras away from the nuclear testing site. On the political side, Indian officials expanded their coordinated deception operation by misleading American and other international diplomats about the impending nuclear test, offering assurances that it was simply not going to happen.

Finally, a dearth of reliable intelligence agents contributed to the CIA's blindness. During the Cold War, South Asia received limited attention from the U.S. intelligence agencies, compared to their concentration on the Soviet Union and its surrogates.

India's nuclear test was the most egregious intelligence failure since the Cold War. Not only did it pinpoint weaknesses in the U.S.'s analytical capabilities, but it also showed just how little the intelligence agencies have been adapting to post-Cold War reality. The failure to recruit both agents and analysts with expertise on South Asia seems especially glaring in light of the fact that the United States had a large potential pool of recruits for the job. Over the past decade, the United States has imported thousands of Indians for high-tech jobs, and many of India's nuclear scientists had been trained at American universities.

American citizens may have wondered with a reasonable sense of indignation--not to say outrage--why their well-funded intelligence community proved ignorant of what was going on inside the largest democracy and one of the most open countries in the world. Indeed, India was low-hanging fruit. Far more difficult than keeping an eye on India is the challenge of gaining access to intelligence on reclusive renegade states like Iraq, Iran, Libya, and North Korea. It is difficult as well to keep track of companies engaged in commercial transactions that aid and abet the spread of weaponry, like the German corporations that secretly assisted in the Iraqi weapons buildup and the construction of the large chemical weapons plant at Rabta in Libya.

Assalaam Alaikum

The failure of the nation's intelligence agencies to anticipate events in a democracy like India doesn't instill confidence in their ability to deal with more complicated assignments. Their growing list of debacles since India's nuclear tests suggests that radical changes are still needed within our secret agencies.

More money is not the answer. The intelligence agencies are already bloated. Instead, the agencies need a shift in priorities with less focus on the gathering of information and more focus on the harder job of providing insights into what that information means.

The intelligence agencies have begun to take some modest steps in the right direction. To remedy the staff deficiencies, the intelligence agencies are currently undertaking their largest recruitment effort since the 1950s. According to a CIA official, the ideal profile for a new recruit is an "Arabic-speaking second generation American living in Detroit." Assuming these ideal rookies can be found and persuaded to join the CIA, they must be thoroughly trained before they are sent overseas. "We need to recruit talent, grow it, and nurture it," emphasizes another senior CIA official, who points to a further difficulty: "And this means paying and promoting area experts in a way that is competitive with the private sector."

This is not an easy task, when today's government salaries are substantially below what smart young people can draw in the business world. The problem is additionally compounded because the CIA has lost the sheen that made it a magnet for the best and the brightest young people in the first two decades after World War II, and its recent litany of failures surely doesn't help.

The top-to-bottom intelligence review that President Bush ordered in May should seek to elevate the importance of analysis in the intelligence agencies. This can be done by hiring more analysts, especially individuals with knowledge, language skills, and experience of the world that lies beyond Russia and Europe. Analysts must be paid more, and given increased opportunities to travel and live abroad, rather than being tethered to their PCs at headquarters.

Analysts must be encouraged to mingle more extensively with scholars in the universities and think tanks, submitting their papers (sans classified items) to academic journals refereed by outside peers. They should also attend more open academic conferences on world affairs, and invite more outside scholars to participate in the CIA's internal discussions about international issues. And outsiders should be invited more frequently to join in the writing of reports for top decision-makers, or to provide critiques of CIA reports--although with the caveat that ideologues with policy axes to grind should be avoided.

Future presidents would do well, in addition, to appoint a leading analyst as CIA director. This would send a signal that analysis lies at the very heart of good decision-making for America's foreign policy. All this is a tall order. But what better time than now for bringing about change, when the world is relatively tranquil and the record of intelligence performance fairly shouts for reform?

The newly elected president--the son of the most popular man ever to serve as CIA director, George H.W. Bush, after whom the CIA's headquarters building is named--may be just the person who can set things straight. But Bush will have to make sure this latest review is not just for show. Left to its own devices, the intelligence bureaucracy will merely tinker at the margins and America's secret agencies will continue their drift toward obsolescence.

Loch Johnson, Regents Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia, is the author of "Bombs, Bugs, Drugs, and Thugs." This article was supported by a grant from Understanding Government.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here