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April 04, 2005

Failures of "Intelligence"

Ashton Carter writes about the Bush administration's "intelligence failures"--which are not failures of the intelligence agencies to do their jobs:

A Failure of Policy, Not Spying (washingtonpost.com): [T]he fallacy in the administration's appointment of a commission to study intelligence failures is that there is almost never such a thing as a pure intelligence failure. Intelligence failure is usually linked to policy failure. It's easy to see why Bush, or any president, would not want to call attention to that link. But the commission should have....

Let's take the case of North Korea. While the commission's chapters on North Korea's nuclear program are rightly classified, the unclassified summary suggests that spies and satellites have yielded very little information about that country's nuclear weapons efforts. But what does it matter? North Korea has admitted, indeed boasted, of its growing nuclear arsenal, and the United States has done nothing to stop it. How could a few more details provided by the CIA make a difference? If you don't have a policy, intelligence is irrelevant. North Korea's runaway nuclear program is a policy failure, not an intelligence failure.

What's worse, policy failure has actually caused intelligence failure in North Korea. From 1994 to 2003 North Korea's plutonium was at a known location, Yongbyon, where it was measured, handled and surveilled by international (including American) inspectors. We could inspect it -- or bomb it -- at any time. But when North Korea threw the inspectors out and threatened to truck the plutonium away to a hidden location, the United States did nothing. In due course the North Koreans made good on their threat and took the plutonium away. Are we now supposed to believe that it is an 'intelligence failure' that we don't know where it is?

A second member of the axis of evil, Iran, demonstrates the same point. Iran, unlike North Korea, denies it has a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration firmly contends that it does and is almost surely right, even though the intelligence is apparently not a 'slam dunk.' But since the administration does not plan either to attack Iran's nuclear sites or to try to negotiate them away (the Europeans are supposed to be trying the negotiation route), it hardly matters whether we know all the details....

Without a comprehensive policy to combat WMD, better intelligence will not improve U.S. security. Bush was right to say that keeping the worst weapons out of the hands of the worst people is a U.S. president's highest national security priority. Since Sept. 11, under his leadership, we have scored many successes against the worst people. But U.S. policy toward the worst weapons is still in a pre-Sept. 11 state. Indeed, since Sept. 11 the United States has suffered greater setbacks in counterproliferation than at any time since the 1980s, when Pakistan went nuclear. Until this changes, preventing intelligence failures will still not matter.

Posted by DeLong at April 4, 2005 01:38 PM