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.
A refusal to recognize these realities flows partly from simple ignorance of how the intelligence process and the intelligence-policy nexus works. The ignorance involves the misconception, for example, that most intelligence work involves receiving a high-level request for a specific answer to a specific question, and delivering a specific collected tidbit in return. Tidbits there are, but the yield from collection aimed at, say, foreign leadership communications is at least as likely to serve as part of the information base for analysts who then, based on a variety of sources, present policymakers with a comprehensive and firmly-grounded assessment of what a foreign government is up to.
The refusal also stems from the incentive of politicians, pundits, and press to frame an issue so that there will be a story either of a lackadaisical, bystander president or of a rogue intelligence agency. Either of those stories is juicier than the reality.
Look back again at the history of what are deemed intelligence failures and we can also see another expectation habitually placed on intelligence agencies: that they ought to be aggressive, creative, and resourceful in going after every piece of information abroad that they can get their hands on and that might help to ward off possible threats or otherwise to inform U.S. foreign policy. This is just the sort of expectation that is usually made of any enterprise, in government or in the private sector, that we hope will achieve excellence. Cracking as tough a collection nut as high-level communications in a foreign government is the sort of accomplishment that in other times and circumstances has been seen as a feather in an agency’s cap. Imagine the confusion and consternation when in the current times the feather is described as a scandal.
Another unrealistic aspect of much of the current discourse about this whole affair is the notion that clear lines can be drawn between friends and foes and that clearly different rules can be applied to each. This is unrealistic partly as a matter of foreign policy and how foreign states play in U.S. interests. Every state has varying degrees of shared and conflicting interests with the United States, and nearly every one of them is part of a problem as well as being part of a solution. The other element of unrealism again has to do with expectations placed on intelligence and what comes to be seen as a surprise and an intelligence failure. The biggest surprises occur where previous patterns—which might have been the basis for categorizing foreign states and making different rules for dealing with them—fall apart. The surprises involve instability where we thought we had stability, a threat arising where we didn’t think there was one, or a foe appearing where we thought we had a friend.
The preferences and sensitivities of friends have long been a complication for intelligence collection. In the 1970s the shah of Iran was considered a good, close friend of the United States, who did much to sustain the U.S. defense industry with his arms purchases and who was relied upon as a pillar of stability in the Persian Gulf. The collection sensitivity with the shah concerned not so much collecting information on his own government but rather the rubbing of shoulders with the Iranian opposition to better understand it. The shah’s government did not like us to do that because it implied a recognition of the opposition and possible fears for the stability of the regime. Then came the Iranian revolution, which now occupies a prominent place on most lists of U.S. intelligence failures, with the principal explanation for failure being inadequate collection of information about the pre-revolutionary opposition.
The oscillation in American attitudes toward U.S. intelligence agencies will continue. The amnesia about earlier phases in each cycle also will continue. When the next big failure occurs, we will have forgotten the dis-empowerment that people are calling for now, and how it may have contributed to that next failure.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The National Interest.