by Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
The U.S. devotes about $50 billion yearly to efforts to assess the capabilities and intentions of other nations. Most of it buys satellite imagery and technology to intercept and decode communications. A big chunk goes to the military for its operational needs, a smaller part to the CIA for analyses and on-the-ground espionage.
President Obama will be looking to find out the answers to big questions such as these: Where is Osama bin Laden? Are Iranian and North Korean leaders determined to pursue nuclear-weapons programs? Will Iraqi leaders be able to govern together in peace? Can the political future of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai be salvaged?
Over the years, U.S. intelligence has delivered good value on matters such as whether Russia would raise oil prices or on the size of China's military. But on many vital questions, the payoffs were dismal: whether the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 could rally Cubans against Castro and the danger of the Shah of Iran's being overthrown in 1979.
Every President has tried to correct deficiencies. They've hired and fired CIA chiefs. Or they've circumvented the system by getting information directly from their foreign counterparts. Since they've spent their lives sizing up people, many Presidents figure they can do that better than the CIA. They're almost always wrong. Bill Clinton thought he had such a fix on Yasir Arafat that he gambled U.S. prestige on the Palestinian's agreeing to a peace accord with Israel in 2000; Arafat refused to sign. George W. Bush met with Russia's Vladimir Putin in 2001 and said, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy...I was able to get a sense of his soul."
It seems Bush missed a thing or two in his peek into Putin's soul. President Kennedy used another technique. In 1963, he sent two experts with very different backgrounds to Vietnam to tell him what was happening. Maj. Gen. Victor "Brute" Krulak and career diplomat Joseph Mendenhall came back with such wildly divergent accounts that Kennedy quipped, "You two did visit the same country, didn't you?" The dirty little secret is that it's difficult to deliver the information Presidents want. Why?
First, it is hard to predict political events. Why should intelligence agencies be able to forecast the future abroad when we can't do it here? In addition, great upheavals - like the collapse of the Soviet Union - generally don't announce themselves. They erupt from long-suppressed hatred that transcends the fear of police or military reprisals.
Second, adversaries will zealously guard their positions on critical issues. Experts probably will never stop debating whether North Korea is ready to cash in its nuclear weapons in exchange for bribes. What's going on in foreign leaders' heads is often revealed only after Presidents act and make proposals, which spark reactions and unearth underlying aims. Similarly, adversaries do well at concealing their most important secrets, especially those related to sensitive weapons. In the Cold War, we ringed the Soviet Union with listening posts and satellites and still couldn't track many of its programs. In 1998, we were clueless about India's plans to explode a nuclear device, despite heavy surveillance. Nor did Washington ever have a real fix on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
Finally, pressure on intelligence experts to conform their estimates to Presidential policies is inescapable, and it distorts evaluations. Once the President takes a clear stance, the intelligence community rarely contradicts him - except with anonymous leaks. Intelligence is a major battlefield on which policy battles are fought. Knowledge is power, and every player in Washington fights to define reality for the President. When hawks convinced U.S. leaders that Moscow had military superiority, they won the ability to spend more on defense and to resist negotiating. If hard-liners persuade Obama today that Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hell-bent on destroying Israel and the U.S., they'll win the debate on taking action to overthrow him.
Every country - not just the U.S. - has problems obtaining good intelligence. Even with the best espionage and analysts, they can't escape the distortions of their culture and politics. Presidents can also take consolation in the fact that as important as good intelligence is to successful policy, there are more important factors. The Soviets had all the intelligence their hearts desired during the Cold War with double agents like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. These U.S. spies knew our secrets and helped keep Moscow in the power competition against America. We had no comparable agents. Still, the Soviets lost the Cold War hands down. They had better intelligence, but we had a much better country. [Gelb/Parade/8March2009]