Intelligence in Recent Public Literature
Richard Betts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 193 pages plus notes, index.
Reviewed by Nicholas Dujmovic
Twenty years ago, the economist and essayist Thomas Sowell
published a persuasive treatise on the history of ideas, A Conflict of Visions,
in which he posited that political differences and policy preferences stem not
so much from one's political priorities as from one's view of the essential
nature of man.1 There are two kinds of people in the world, Sowell argued: those with a "constrained vision" see mankind as unchanging and imperfect, while those with an "unconstrained vision" view man as a malleable, changeable, even perfectible animal.
Policy choices follow accordingly.
Likewise with the field of intelligence.
Whether as process, product, or profession, it comes down to people, and one's
view of intelligence and what ought to be done about it ultimately is shaped by
how one views people, with all their virtues and achievements, vices and
In this important collection of essays,
Dr. Richard K. Betts of Columbia University demonstrates the consistently clear
thinking that has marked his writings on intelligence for the past three
Though he does not mention
Sowell's work, Betts's work is fundamentally an application of Sowell's thesis
to intelligence. Betts seems to suggest that, when it comes to intelligence,
there also are two kinds of people: those who believe intelligence can be made
perfect or nearly so--all we need is the right reform package--and those who
doubt that any kind or degree of reform can prevent failures.
Betts addresses what too often has been
lacking in the national debate about intelligence and its reform since the
attacks of 11 September 2001: a sober and realistic assessment of what
intelligence can be expected to do and, more importantly, what it cannot
reasonably be expected to do because of its built-in, and therefore
These limitations, which Betts calls
"enemies of intelligence," are behind all intelligence failures, so
they bear scrutiny. Betts groups them into three categories. The first is
obvious: "outside enemies" are literally our national enemies--the
foreign adversaries whose capabilities we must divine, whose plans we must
thwart, and whose allies here must be caught.
Betts's second category, "innocent
enemies," consists of organizational shortcomings that cause failure,
including institutional myopia, negligence in standard procedures, gaps in
coverage, inefficiencies caused by organizational redundancies, the lack of
particular skill sets--the kinds of things that bureaucracies, particularly
government bureaucracies, do or don't do out of institutional legacies or
laziness. Betts finds that most of the debate about intelligence focuses on
this category of enemies: if we hire better people and organize them properly,
it is widely assumed, we can prevent intelligence failures.3 Fix the wiring diagram of US intelligence and all will be well.
Betts is having none of this; he is
skeptical about the efficacy of organizational reform in eliminating failure
not only because intelligence is genuinely challenged by the guile of outside
enemies but because of "inherent enemies," his third category of
enemies. These are the limitations that are part of the human condition and
that exist in the nature of the practice of intelligence itself. They
"pervade the process no matter who is involved, and they intrude time and
time again. Although not immune to defeat, they are extraordinarily
Critics of intelligence often do
not appreciate, usually because they've had no relevant experience, that the
demands placed on the human brain by the requirements of intelligence
operations and analysis quite literally can go beyond reasonable expectations
regarding perception, reasoning, memory, and imagination. As Betts observes,
"cognition cannot be altered by legislation."
Critics also often fail to recognize
that the practice of intelligence always involves trade-offs: analytic accuracy
versus timeliness, organizational centralization versus pluralism, the need to
share information versus the imperative for security, the benefits of expertise
versus the fresh views of non-experts, to mention just a few of the prominent
dilemmas. The WMD Commission in 2005, for example, recommended that the
Intelligence Community create more centers to achieve "fusion" in
analysis; Betts points out the downsides of such centers, including diminished
competitive analysis, creation of new "stovepipes" for information,
and entrenched large, new bureaucracies.
Expectations must take these realities
into account. Unrealistic expectations, like a "zero defects" standard,
will hinder effective reform. Betts is particularly critical, and with good
reason, of those who think that we can prevent intelligence failures by
improving analytic procedures. Tweaking processes, of course, can improve
analysis, but such improvement will be marginal rather than radical, according
to Betts, for the simple reason that intelligence failures most often result
not from analytic error but from mistakes by policymakers: "Failures occur
more often at the consuming than the producing end of intelligence."
Ultimately, Betts's argument seems to be
directed more at policymakers and other consumers of intelligence than at
practitioners of intelligence, who already know their craft's inherent
limitations. Policymakers, says Betts, can't have it all when faced with the
dilemmas practitioners face: they cannot insist on the benefits of multiple
opinions and on a single, coordinated analytic line; or force a consolidation
of resources while expecting intelligence to maintain worldwide coverage; or demand
analysis that is honest in describing complex realities and unambiguous.
Policymakers have the responsibility to learn about intelligence and its
limitations, to provide guidance, and to understand that intelligence
paradoxically provides the unwanted news the policymaker needs, and should
want, to hear. Above all, Betts wants policymakers to set priorities and
accept, simply as a mature, realistic stance, that there will be the occasional
and unambiguous disaster and that, by contrast, intelligence successes are
difficult to measure and assess (and therefore to take credit for). We tend not
to notice the disasters that did not happen.
None of this is to let intelligence
professionals off the hook. Improvement should always be worked for, and this
requires intelligence officers to press policymakers for guidance, to show some
independence in implementing requirements, and even, on occasion, to present
unwelcome news in such a way that it cannot be ignored--what Betts calls
"grabbing the lapels" of the policymaker. National security is not
served when intelligence considers "the customer" always right, or
says "yes" when a "no" is warranted. Though Betts does not
say so directly, this was the major problem of the directorship of George
Tenet, as one can conclude from Tenet's recent memoir.5
The most controversial part of this book
concerns Betts's conclusions about the proper balance between security and
freedom. When it comes to collecting intelligence to prevent another 9/11,
Americans need to realize that the right to privacy is not on the same plane as
other civil liberties: "It is reasonable to invade the privacy of some
citizens in order to gain information that might help protect the lives of all
citizens." Many will disagree, and Betts admits his argument derives from
a practical sense of what needs to be done rather than a legally recognized
"hierarchy" of rights in the Constitution.6 Nonetheless,
Betts deserves attention on this score. The panic that would result from
another dramatic attack, he argues, will "sweep away" our devotion
for civil liberties generally--Betts is particularly concerned about due
process for citizens--unless careful steps are taken beforehand to reduce the
expectation of privacy, with proper precautions to limit the government's use
of such information, not its ability to collect it.7
A brief review cannot do justice to this
rich and densely argued book. Betts uses historical cases well, particularly on
the issue of politicization during the Vietnam war, the Team A & B
controversy over Soviet strategic forces in the 1970s, and Iraq analysis in
2002 and 2003. Other important points that Betts makes include:
It is possible to be wrong for the right reasons and not because
analysts were somehow derelict; we have to avoid the temptation to define
"sound" judgments solely as those that turn out to be accurate.
The main intelligence failure before the 9/11 attacks was the
"insufficient collection of unambiguous information," but the
trade-offs from a maximum effort includes the loss of focus and the risks taken
by deployed collection platforms (the Pueblo, e.g.).
A realistic reform proposal would be to institutionalize an analytic
process that included the views of a generalist (or non-specialist) known for
"exceptional thinking" to argue the case for discontinuity in any
major estimate or analytic assessment.8
The twin failures of 9/11 and the 2003 Iraqi WMD estimate made
intelligence reform politically imperative, but the resulting structural change
left basic questions unanswered: for example, the DNI is basically the same
figure as the DCI, but DCIs could have had more authority if only presidents
were willing to give it. Will presidents or the Congress give the DNI the
authority he needs, that is, over military agencies?
Whether one agrees with all of Betts's
conclusions, this illuminating discussion of intelligence in the post-Cold War
age is necessary reading for the intelligence professional, and for those
served by the profession. I would also recommend its use in academic courses
dealing with intelligence and reform.
[Top of page]
Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (New
York: William Morrow, 1987). It was reissued in 2002 by Basic Books.
Betts's voluminous writings on national security, two of his works on
intelligence, separated by a quarter century, stand out as classic essays:
"Why Intelligence Failures are Inevitable," World Politics (October
1978); and "Fixing Intelligence," Foreign Affairs (January-February
organizational focus of the history of intelligence reform proposals and
prescriptions can be seen in Michael Warner and J. Kenneth Macdonald, US
Intelligence Community Reform Studies Since 1947 (Washington, DC: Center for
the Study of Intelligence, 2005).
Enemies of Intelligence, 12; emphasis added.
Tenet with Bill Harlow, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at CIA (New York:
reviewer, Steven Aftergood in his blog on the Federation of American Scientists
Web site (www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/2007/09/in_print_enemies_of_intelligen.html),
asserts that Betts's argument would turn the US Constitution itself into an
"enemy of intelligence." This is a misreading that ignores the
boundaries of Betts's categories and his advocacy of ways to preserve civil liberties
against government encroachment.
have argued for the need for "rules of engagement," both to protect
American civil liberties and to allow intelligence officers to do their jobs.
See David Robarge's review of James Olsen's Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of
Spying (Washington, DC: Potomac, 2006), in Studies in Intelligence 51 no. 1
is hardly a fresh idea (see Bruce Reidel's discussion of the Israeli use of
such a system in the Winter 1986 issue of Studies in Intelligence), but
sometimes new situations require fresh looks at old ideas.